Must-read business books entertain, instruct, enlighten

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Posted: Thursday, July 4, 2013 12:00 am

If there is one question I am consistently asked every summer, it is this: What's the best business book that I should be reading?

It's an oddly challenging question given the number of terrific books that have been written over the years about the world of business and finance. Invariably, I punt on the question and blurt out a couple of obvious classics.

This year, however, a reader, an MBA student, asked the question slightly differently. The reader, who approached me on the subway with a copy of “Barbarians at the Gate” in hand, asked, “If you wanted to get smart about business by reading your way through the summer, what would your master reading list look like?”

I had to get off the subway before I was able to answer.

So I have tried to compile a list of my absolute must-read business books. Some of them are gorgeously written, dramatic narratives that could pass as fiction if they weren't true and could easily count as beach reading; others are tougher reads but provide a grounding in economic and business history that will help any reader who wants to be part of the conversation around the big issues of the day; and still others are practical books that help explain the thinking inside the corner office and those who aspire to get there.

Here are the books:

If I could read only one book this summer, it would be “Den of Thieves” by James B. Stewart, which was published in 1992 but feels just as relevant today given the insider trading investigations into Steven A. Cohen and the coming trial of Fabrice Tourre, a former Goldman Sachs trader.

The book is a masterful look at the insider trading scandals and greed on Wall Street of the late 1980s and mirrors much of the current narrative with a colorful cast of characters like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Some of the great cliche phrases on Wall Street, like “Your bunny has a good nose!” will finally make sense when you finish this book. (Stewart is now a columnist at the New York Times.)

Of my absolute favorite business books, two are obvious classics that have already received their due but can't be omitted: “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco” by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, who chronicled what was at the time the largest takeover in history, the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts; and “Liar's Poker” by Michael Lewis, a romp through his time as a young trader at Salomon Brothers.

I'd add one more to that classics list that has largely gone underappreciated and is often privately lauded among some of the best business writers in the country, “The Informant” by Kurt Eichenwald. The book is about the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal, but the reader doesn't have to care about agriculture to appreciate it.

The book reads like a John Grisham thriller that just happens to be true and happens to be about business. It has some of the best, richest dialogue I have ever read in a nonfiction book, in part because Eichenwald had access to recordings of conversations made by an FBI informant who is the central character.

The genre of narrative business books that I love so much — the ones that have a you-are-there quality — was invented, or so it is said, in 1982 by David McClintick, who wrote “Indecent Exposure,” a rollicking good read about a Hollywood scandal and the ultimate boardroom power struggle at Columbia Pictures.

If you're trying to better understand what's going on in our economy now, to better appreciate the power of the Federal Reserve and all the financial issues being debated in Washington, it's worth going on a trip down memory lane to read a bit of history, since all too often it repeats itself.

A good place to start is “Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World” by Liaquat Ahamed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his historical look at the many crises — and central bankers — that led up to the Great Depression. It is a favorite book of Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner. Also worth plucking off the shelf is “Capitalism and Freedom” by Milton Friedman, a seminal work that helped frame a long and heated debate about capitalism versus socialism that is still at the heart of the American discussion of the economy and politics.

Of course, it's probably worth reading some of the more recent books about the financial crisis that has shaped much of our current economic environment. Because I wrote one, I won't recommend a specific title, but there is a handful of good ones out there.

By now, it seems as if everyone has already read Thomas L. Friedman's “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.” It changed the way we think about global business, competitiveness and the implication for far-flung economies, governments, education and more. Friedman, a longtime columnist for the Times, last revised the book in 2007, but it's as relevant as ever to thinking about the current challenges. If you haven't read it, do so.

For readers looking for a great biography, start with “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. It provides remarkable insight into the eccentricities and drive of Jobs. It also raises some profound questions about what it takes to lead a successful company. Then grab Ron Chernow's “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.” Jobs and Rockefeller couldn't be more different and probably cannot be compared, but both books provide a glimpse into important and crucial moments in business history.

While we're talking about titans and strategy, pick up “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. Michael Ovitz, the former Creative Artists Agency agent turned investor, used to give away a copy of this book to his staff. Even if you find the underlying message repugnant, it is an interesting window into the soul and strategy of much of the corporate world.

If you want an even deeper examination of modern management and strategy techniques, it is always worth reading the ultimate philosophical classic: “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Finally, there is perhaps the one “must” book on the list that will help you think about Wall Street, investing and, surprisingly, life. It is “The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing “ by Benjamin Graham.

It's at the top of Warren Buffett's list, and that's not a bad place to start.

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