As you pack your bags for the Hamptons or the Sierra Nevadas or that trout lake in northern Ontario, don't give in to the summertime tradition of reaching for the latest page-turner from John Grisham or Elmore Leonard. Instead, consider investing $15 in a paperback that is at least tangentially business-related and will pay dividends at the water cooler. If your colleagues are like mine, they won't get wound up about some ghost heroine's quest for revenge. Watch them lean in, though, to hear about Kirk Kerkorian getting kicked out of high school for punching a teacher's son in the throat. Besides, if ever there were a summer to appear productive on vacation, this is it. The 2009 edition of BusinessWeek's annual summer roundup of new paperbacks ranges from a self-help book by a reformed crackhead media magnate to an engaging romp through the history of international trade.
First, the (former) crackhead: Felix Dennis. Surprisingly, How to Get Rich: One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets (Portfolio, $16), by the man who made a mint with lad magazine Maxim, offers lots of thought-provoking and sound advice on accruing wealth through entrepreneurship. And just for fun, it's peppered with episodes from the hard-drinking and somewhat mangy author's whacky past, like the time at John Lennon's house (during the recording of Imagine) when Dennis grabbed a mic, started belting out R&B standards, and got a lesson in both life and singing from the Liverpudlian, as producer Phil Spector glowered from the control room. Dennis' main business maxim: Never sell your stake, unless you must.
Fareed Zakaria's best seller from '08, The Post-American World (Norton, $15.95), remains chillingly relevant. Timed, perhaps, to broaden the conversation prior to the last Presidential election, the book lays out how badly the U.S. has been playing a geopolitical hand he calls "the best of any country in history." In painting a portrait of the growing prowess and stature of China and India, as well as the rapid progress of many African nations, Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, also makes it clear the U.S. is not yet a lost cause. Its strengths include a maligned but still unparalleled education system and the cross-border bonds built by American multinationals.
Next on the menu, alphabet soup. In Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing (Simon & Schuster, $16), investigative reporter Tim Shorrock turns his sights on the 16 agencies—from the CIA to the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency)—that report to the ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence). What he found is that $42 billion, or 70% of the nation's intelligence budget in 2006, went to contractors. These include Verizon Communications (VZ) and AT&T (T) but also lesser-knowns such as ManTech International (MANT) and CACI International (CACI), whose interrogators-for-hire have been implicated, but never charged, in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Shorrock's take: "It's not just the secrecy, or the corruption, or the cronyism, or the lack of oversight that's wrong with intelligence contracting: it's also the extent of outsourcing."
The fraught and at times fraudulent world of fine wine is the setting for The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Three Rivers Press, $14.95). Author Benjamin Wallace delivers a delicious account of how wine con man (and rock band manager) Hardy Rodenstock relieved Malcolm Forbes of $156,000 in exchange for a bottle of Château Lafite. Rodenstock convinced Forbes and others, including industrialist Bill Koch, that he had stumbled on a cache of wine bottled in 1787 and bought by Thomas Jefferson. Needless to say, he hadn't. Wallace's telling of the tale is a captivating study of complicity between the fleeced and the fleecer.
Richard H. Thaler, the grand old man of behavioral economics, and Cass R. Sunstein, President Barack Obama's regulations czar, teamed up to write Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Penguin, $16). The idea that humans make choices irrationally shouldn't come as a surprise. But Thaler and Sunstein have formulated a remedy—of sorts: Governments and organizations can gently steer, or nudge, people down the wisest paths without taking away anyone's freedom of choice. This insightful book is selling well and is almost certain to influence public policy.
What happens in Vegas, especially among the men who built it, makes for a titillating read. Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas (Hyperion, $15.99) examines the risk-taking and the outrageous egos of three inventive and diverse players in the gambling world. Author Christina Binkley doesn't reach any lofty conclusions about them, but her rich reporting brings to life Wynn the showman, Kerkorian the dealmaker, and Loveman the technician in dazzling and sometimes disgusting fashion.
In the acclaimed A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (Grove Press $16.95), William J. Bernstein roams freely through history to nail down long-distance trade's 7,000-year evolution, as well as its costs and many benefits. From the Silk Road to Vasco da Gama in Goa to American beef on Queen Victoria's plate, Bernstein delivers the goods in an entertaining way. The book opens near the Euphrates River in 3,000 B.C., with copper-helmeted nomadic raiders setting off an arms race and spurring trade. But Bernstein argues that trade has made the world a safer place, if only because our "neighbors are more useful alive than dead." Remember that as you search for a place to spread your blanket at the beach.