Rib’s Recommended Reading: business literature for students and grads


A personal reading list of business related literature that influenced the author’s world view.

John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller

When I graduated from college, more people took jobs as journalists than management consultants.  Today, newspapers, magazines and television stations hire more management consultants than journalists.  So it goes.

My nephew Julian, who spent Thanksgiving with us, started college wanting to be a journalist.  He switched to business, recently graduated from the University of Illinois and began his career as an entry-level analyst with a national consulting firm.  Still having an urge to write, he wondered how that might be someday be compatible with his daily diet of spreadsheets.

To help him explore the possibilities, I told Julian that business at its best is an art form performed by geniuses who (like all great artists) are well grounded in the fundamentals and rules, but are uniquely gifted in their ability to:

  • Understand what people want and create things that meet their needs,
  • Manage the resources needed to provide those things effectively,
  • Negotiate deals that ensure the enterprise is profitable.

More than 90% of the skills needed to excel in those areas cannot be taught by teachers or gleaned in text books.  But, much of it can be learned by reading great literature about business that illuminates the roots of success and failure.  Whether he wants to spend his entire career wrapped up in the game, or look for opportunities to write about the world of commerce, he should absorb important books about business the same way an aspiring film maker needs to learn both the techniques and the humanity behind all the great movies.

I told Julian that he could not go wrong by starting with the following seven books on Rib’s Recommended Reading List:

1) Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

No person, before or since, created as much wealth and controlled a larger part of the world economy. Knowing who he was is critical to knowing how and why he did what he did.

2) Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

When it first chronicled the irrationality and ego mania of Wall Street more than 20 years ago, many believed that its harsh light would prevent future excess. Recent events prove that its portrayal of the insanity behind major deals is as timeless as Shakespeare’s portrayals of MacBeth, Lear, Richard III and the rest.

3) Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann

I read this German novel years before entering business but its lessons return front and center when I have dealings with organizations owned or managed by members of the same family, no matter how large or small.

4) Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

A fictional chronicle of Wall Street by the finest reporter on American culture of the last 50 years. Sadly, I’ll bet Alan Greenspan read both this and Barbarians, yet was still surprised that the investment banks imploded.

5) Ford: The Men and the Machines by Robert Lacey

This book about America’s most important manufacturer reveals exactly how a company goes from tinkering in a garage to an immovable behemoth.

6) Trump: The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump and Tony Schwartz

You don’t want to take anything in this book at face value, but it is an important read for those who can see between the lines. You learn that success does not need a sound strategy or competent management, just complete belief in your own abilities, lack of inhibition, and tireless zeal. Trump also possesses a unique and strange form of personal integrity that I can’t describe, but is key to his achievements.

7) The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner

This book about history’s most important economic thinkers used to be required reading for every college freshman in America. Today, most students and recent grads say they have never heard about it. There is more here about how businesses and governments got to where they are now than in any 120 pages anywhere.

Let me know what you think of this list and please suggest other mandatory reading.

Previous Post >

Leave a Comment

Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Tom Groenfeldt July 6, 2011, 7:10 pm

Peter Drucker’s memoir, Adventures of a Bystander. The inventor of management explains how it happened, going back to pre-Nazi life in Vienna and meeting lots of interesting people along the way, including the man who invented Kissinger.

Carroll Lachnit December 2, 2009, 8:36 pm

Great list! Since I’m a recovering mystery writer, in addition to being an editor at a site & magazine aimed at HR people, my choices are eclectic, not essential, and have a workforce bent: “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis (about talent development), “And Then We Came to the End,” the best sad/funny novel about layoffs I’ve ever read, and “The Ax,” by Donald Westlake, the best dark-satiric thriller about a laid-off worker who will stop at nothing to get a coveted job, and “Company,” by Max Barry, about a big consulting firm that is not exactly what it seems and where HR knows EVERYTHING!