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The Non-Business Business Book

Posted by: Jena McGregor on July 24, 2007

I’ve been surprised by the staying power of the story in the New York Times on CEO libraries. Since the story appeared on Saturday, it’s been one of the Times’ most emailed articles, not just from the business section, but from the entire newspaper’s site. I have to admit I found the article somewhat disappointing—Ogilvy’s Shelly Lazarus and Steve Jobs were the only sitting CEOs of major companies mentioned, and the only clue we get to Jobs’ reading list is that he likes William Blake—and wondered what the author would have found on the bookshelves of less creative or entrepreneurial leaders.

Even given the article’s peculiar sample—which also featured venture capitalist Michael Moritz, a medical school accreditation nonprofit CEO, Nike founder Phil Knight and entrepreneurs Dee Hock (who retired from Visa back in 1984) and Sidney Harman—it was interesting to see how little of their reading pertained to business. From the Persian poem “Rubaiyat” to Galileo, Aristotle, and Camus, the reading list was impressively highbrow.

I found Shelly Lazarus’s list most interesting, which included Jerome Groopman’s “How Doctors Think” (it’s been recommended to me by leadership expert Noel Tichy) and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which recounts Abraham Lincoln’s leadership style. While I haven’t had CEOs tell me they turn to Shakespeare or Steinbeck for leadership lessons, I do find that many love biographies, history, and the current wave of economic and social science books that help to explain our world (witness the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and “Freakonomics”). One book that I’ve been hearing a lot about lately from business types is “The Black Swan,” written by trader-turned-scientist Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Check out my colleague Susan Berfield’s interview with him here.

What non-business books have you recently found helpful for business?

Reader Comments


July 24, 2007 10:32 AM


I read that NYTimes article over the weekend and forwarded it on to our president who said he has read it too. My house is filled with books albeit not too many fictional works. When I want to broaden my mind I reach for non-fiction especially in philosophy. Don't read as many business books as I used to -- most have become bland and boring in my opinion -- and have since, like the others mentioned in the article, gone into history and general topics. My aspiration really is about thinking different, thinking sharper, thinking wiser.

Haven't read Nassim Taleb's "Black Swan" but his previous book "Fooled By Randomness" is the best among the best. I highly recommend it. Steve Levitt's "Freakonomics" is just a fun read all around.

Speaking of best books, and the article's excellent mention of learning from our mentor's mentor seems to point to where we should look, the book I regularly turn to is the 2500-year-old Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." The ultimate guide to resolving conflict and competitive success. If you read it, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't read it, read it (I highly recommend the website) and decide for yourself.

Thanks for bringing this topic up Jena.



July 25, 2007 2:35 PM

I read a lot and have probably a couple thousand books but I would say only a few are specifically business books. My humble opinion is that it isn't so much the subject matter of the book as much as it is that you are reading. Like every other muscle (I know the brain isn't a muscle really) the brain needs exercise and reading gets you thinking and opens pathways that you might not otherwise have thought of. Without reading your mind becomes dormant.

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