From time to time, readers suggest blog topics to me. I am always interested in the range of topics suggested. Very late at night (or perhaps early in the morning) in the bar at the recent PLUS International Conference in San Antonio, a loyal reader whom I had only just met for the first time suggested that I write a blog post about my favorite business books. Unsurprisingly, it seemed like a good idea then. Surprisingly, it still seemed like a good idea later.
My notion of the books worth recommending may diverge from what the reader had in mind when he made the suggestion. I figure that no one really needs me to suggest the usual fare from the business section at the book store, like, for example, The Smartest Guys in the Room or Liar’s Poker. If those books interest you, by all means, read them.
The problem with the vast run of business books is that they rarely aim for anything higher. To find anything of more lasting value, you must look elsewhere. So my suggested "business" books won’t be found in the business section, and in fact may not necessarily meet anybody’s idea of what constitutes a business book. But these books have more to say about the business of life and the life of business than the more conventional fare. Here are a half- dozen essential books I suggest to anyone looking for something a little more substantial:
The Way We Live Now: Regrettably, the books of Anthony Trollope are not much read these days, perhaps because he was such a prolific writer and not all of his works were equally good. But he wrote several very fine books, including Orley Farm and Doctor Thorne. By far his best novel is The Way We Live Now, a scathing and bitter satire of late 19th Century English society and morals.
The central character is this vast book is Augustus Melmotte, a foreign financier with an uncertain past who sets all of London society ablaze with his seemingly immense wealth. He schemes to procure actual wealth through an American railroad development project, intending drive up the share prices so he can extract gains at others’ expense.
Melmotte is surrounded by a crowd of witting and unwitting accomplices whose greed, vanity or self-deception allow them to be carried along in the plot, which becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds. The catalog of characters and sub-plots is rich, thick and entertaining.
No one can turn back time, but there are squadrons of heartbroken investors who might have spared themselves financial tragedy if they had only been first introduced to Melmotte before they met Madoff.
The House of Rothschild: One of the great financial historians of our time is Niall Ferguson, whose book The Ascent of Money makes a compelling case that the development of currency and banking was the indispensible prerequisite for the emergence of modern civilization. But I think Ferguson’s most valuable work is his two-volume history of the rise of the Rothschild banking family. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of modern finance, and also to appreciate the interplay of historical forces and familial ambitions, will be amply rewarded for reading these books.
The story of how the five sons of Meyer Amschel Rothschild went on to establish themselves as the premier bankers in Europe and to become the financiers to the sovereigns across the continent is well-told and instructive. The firm’s inviolable founding principles kept the family establishment together across borders and across generations, as well as through wars and economic crises, and allowed the family to ride the changing tides of history and survive the ever-present anti-Semitism to establish a dynasty more durable (and vastly better financed) than all of the royal houses.
Dombey and Son: The novels of Charles Dickens vividly capture the life of so many late 19th century British institutions. Given that Dickens wrote in and of a country that has been derided as "a nation of shopkeepers," it is perhaps indispensible that Dickens also captured the life of street level commerce and it is entirely fitting that one of Dickens’ finest novels revolves around a trader and his ambitions for himself and for his firm and family.
Dombey’s huge (and ultimately thwarted) ambitions for his son set the frame for a narrative that races on even as it races away from Dombey’s own ability to trace and track his own interests. His frustrated ambitions leave him aged and bitter, but his ultimate reunion with his estranged daughter, Florence, provide a measure of redemption at the end.
The House of Medici: Before the Rothschilds, before the processes of institutions of finance evolved all of their modern forms, the Medici were the premier banking family in Europe. In later generations, they went on to wed kings and to serve as Popes, but they began as textile traders. Only later, Cosimo de’Medici, transformed the family’s growing banking influence into the foundation of a political dynasty that lasted for generations.
Although the family has a modern reputation for ambition and ruthlessness, their success, at least in its origins, was more mundane. As retold in Christopher Hibbert’s book, The House of Medici, a notable contribution to the family’s success was their early adoption of the double-entry bookkeeping system for keeping track of debits and credits.
And although they amassed great wealth, they were among the most important benefactors of the Italian Renaissance. Among the many artists the family sponsored were Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Donatello and Fra Angelico. The family’s collection serves as the core of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
While the family’s glory and wealth is well remembered, the family’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. Hibbert’s one-volume account captures the travails and misfortunes, which included exile, assassination attempts, and financial declines, as well as the periods of the family’s astonishing ascendancy.
Buddenbrooks: This novel is one of my favorite books, even though it is, admittedly, a total downer. Thomas Mann’s novel, Buddenbrooks, tells the story of four generations of the Buddenbrooks family and its merchant trading business in 19th century Lubeck. The story begins at what only later becomes apparent is the family’s high water mark, when old Johann and Frau Counsel Buddenbrooks are enjoying the simple fruits of prosperity while still living over the trading house.
At the book’s center are the struggles and ambitions of the next generation, Thomas Buddenbrooks and his sister Antonie. Thomas takes over the family business, which prospers at first. But then due to the pressure of maintaining the business and living up to society’s and his own expectations, he is ultimately consumed with self-doubt. He finally puts all of his hopes and ambitions in his son, who is more interested in art than business. Antonie, who marries badly in order to serve the family interests, also finds herself unable to find her way and assist her brother.
Although the family’s decline seems preordained, there are many choices along the way that were not inevitable and that could have avoided later disasters. Antonie’s unsustainable devotion to luxury is but one of the weaknesses that leads to her own poor decisions. Thomas’s ill-fated decision to possess a grand house similarly undermines his self-confidence, as the house comes to possess him. The turning away of the subsequent generations from the simplicity and thrifty frugality of the family business’s founder seems to underlie the family’s ultimate decline.
In recommending this book once, I said that "what this book is about is life." It is an epic story of the ebb and flow of family fortunes, the blessings and burdens of prosperity, and the difficult challenges that face all of us as we navigate across the years.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: According to tradition and at least some evidence, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations while campaigning against the empire’s many foreign enemies. Marcus composed these brief statements of Stoic philosophy and self-discipline to exhort himself to be a better version of himself.
Marcus recorded his thoughts as a way to examine his own strengths and weaknesses, in order to determine how best he should live. He articulates a strong personal philosophy based on his own responsibility for his own actions as well as the need to maintain equanimity for the things he cannot control, including both the actions of others and (ultimately) death.
The Mediations are fully of many good, noble and thought-provoking statements and ideas that are all the more powerful given that at the time Marcus recorded these thoughts, he was probably the most powerful person on the planet. He writes with simplicity and clarity, and repeatedly calls himself simply to achieve a good life well lived.
In the business of life, we all encounter periods when we too find ourselves compelled to battle enemies who threaten all that we have worked to achieve. To persevere under these circumstances are among life’s great challenges. The thoughts Marcus recorded during his own times of crises are a substantial help and guide. As Marcus wrote, the important thing is to be the best and most noble person you can be: ‘The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.’
Though I have assembled here a list of half-dozen essential books, there undoubtedly are many more books that might be added to this list. I encourage readers to suggest their own candidates by using this blog’s Comment feature. Please take the time to share your own thoughts and suggestions with me and with other readers.