The year's best books take on the Great Recession, the reasons we work, and more
So you think TV and magazines practice herd journalism? Take a look at book publishing's copycat ways. For every The Lost Symbol and Freakonomics, there are scores of wannabe volumes conjuring up mysterious conspiracies and demystifying economic phenomena. The number of Malcolm Gladwell doppelgängers seems to grow yearly.
It's hardly a wonder, then, that the financial meltdown prompted a dozen or more titles, recapitulating developments in a variety of ways. Among the best is House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street (Doubleday) by financial writer William D. Cohan. The page-turner documents how Bear Stearns, once the Street's preeminent bond shop, flamed out and had to sell itself to JPMorgan Chase (JPM) for a pittance. The firm had ridden the housing boom with arcane mortgage-backed securities, but its C-suite had shockingly little idea of its exposure to the toxic stuff, says Cohan. In the end, Bear earned billions setting the stage for the world to lose trillions.
You say you've had enough of Wall Street's trauma ward? Well, I'm just getting started, but there are plenty of other topics in BusinessWeek's annual list of the year's top business books.
Perhaps the most comprehensive of the meltdown books is New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves (Viking). The account begins days after the Bear Stearns purchase and ends shortly after the government decided to inject tens of billions into the big banks in order to save the system. This volume will appeal to a broad audience owing to its quirky details and little-known stories.
The New Yorker writer John Cassidy says his How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) examines the rise and fall of free-market ideology. In contrast to "utopians" who he says advocate "a rigid and unquestioning devotion" to self-interest and competition, Cassidy favors what he calls "reality-based economics"—including the work of John Maynard Keynes. Said reviewer Christopher Farrell: The "ambitious" volume "brings ideas alive."
Another book that emphasizes the role of human actions, and human frailty, is False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World (Riverhead) by Financial Times world trade editor Alan Beattie. Roaming freely through the corridors of history, Beattie spots economic distortions caused by misguided trade pacts and greedy interest groups. He also discovers economic triumphs despite such presumed barriers as corruption or religious tradition. False Economy is filled with insights, said reviewer Jack Ewing.
A more ground-level view of human enterprise can be found in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Pantheon) by Alain De Botton, a writer of wide-ranging interests. In a photo-loaded work, De Botton surveys a variety of jobs—career counseling, tuna fishing, even rocket science—and offers various musings. "When does a job feel meaningful?" he asks. "Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others." The author finds both humor and grief in our labors.
ADS, OIL, AND VODKA
It was a good year for biography and business history. The King of Madison Avenue: David Ogilvy and the Making of Modern Advertising (Palgrave Macmillan), by former ad man Kenneth Roman, is an entertaining portrait of the legendary figure behind Ogilvy & Mather. Ogilvy drew many key life lessons from the odd jobs (sous-chef, door-to-door salesman) he performed in his twenties. These contrasted sharply with his late-life baronial lifestyle. Ogilvy is best remembered for his ad coups, including the eyepatch-wearing Hathaway shirt man.
The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (Penguin Press) elegantly interweaves the stories of four petroleum barons of the Lone Star State: Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, Sid Richardson, and H.L. Hunt. Author Bryan Burrough offers particularly compelling accounts of Cullen, the fifth-grade dropout who became the richest man in the U.S., and Hunt, the onetime professional poker player who gained fame bankrolling right-wing political causes. All benefited from what the author calls "among the greatest periods of wealth creation in American history."
Another tale of fierce determination and entrepreneurial drive is former BusinessWeek staffer Linda Himelstein's The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire (Harper). Smirnov, who began his enterprise in 1864, not only invented his own recipes but also proved a skilled marketer. By 1886 he had become the official vodka purveyor to the Tsar. After the Bolsheviks nationalized the outfit, the brand was reborn in 1920s Europe and later in the U.S., thanks to émigré Smirnovs who inherited the family's go-getter genes.
Robert Skidelsky's Keynes: The Return of the Master (PublicAffairs) makes a strong case for rereading one of the seminal figures of modern macroeconomics. A key Keynesian concept is that the future is unpredictable, but there will certainly be economic shocks, Keynes felt, and the system must include mechanisms that can respond. Keynes also emphasized the connection between economics and an ethical life.
Finally, veteran New Yorker writer Ken Auletta's Googled: The End of the World As We Know It (Penguin Press) is a deeply reported profile of the search powerhouse. Google's engineering-focused culture, says the author, is both its greatest strength and its Achilles' heel: Having the best search technology has let Google (GOOG) dominate the search-ad market, but it may have made it insensitive to criticism. Auletta concludes: "If Google maintains its deposit of public trust...and if it stays humble and moves with the swiftness of a fox, it will be difficult to catch."