Summer Reading for B-Schoolers

Whether they're on the beach or on the subway, MBA students are filling the off-season with books. Here's a look at some of their choices

By Francesca Di Meglio

Kristen Rolf, a second-year student at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., breaks the ice with classmates by asking them about their favorite books. "Tuck is such a diverse and interesting place that it was always a fascinating conversation," says Rolf. "But Tuck is also a demanding place where we have little time for pleasure reading during the school year." In May, she e-mailed the entire Class of 2006 and asked people to share what they planned to read over the summer. The suggestions included everything from standard business texts to classic literature.

About 35% of Americans list reading as their favorite pastime, making it the country's No. 1 leisure activity, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive, a market-research firm in Rochester, N.Y. And MBA students and professors refuse to be left out of the fun. They might spend the entire academic year with their noses in books, but the summer is their chance to write their own personal reading lists.

"Most of my summer reading is for pure pleasure. I get enough heavy reading on globalization at work," says Andrew B. Bernard, professor of International Economics at Tuck. "I have already taken a week's vacation at the beach and worked through five or six detective novels."


  Want to know what books you should read in the sun -- or more likely on the commute to and from your internship? Here are some of the titles making the rounds in the B-school world:

Bernard might be laying off the globalization texts, but the professors at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill can't get enough of them -- even during the off-season. The most popular -- among Kenan-Flagler faculty and the general public -- is the bestselling The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. Known for translating complex foreign policy and economics issues into layman's terms, Friedman strikes gold, say critics, with this relevant book about how globalization is affecting the world and particularly the U.S.

His smart introduction, in which he compares himself to explorer Christopher Columbus -- they were both interested in discovering India's economic power, after all -- carries readers into the rest of the book, which is rich in stories. Nicholas M. Didow Jr., an associate professor of Marketing at Kenan-Flagler says this might be Friedman's most significant book since The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), which won the National Book Award for nonfiction.


  Another globalization title that's popping up on many summer reading lists is The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) by Pietra Rivoli. By tracing the whereabouts of her $6 T-shirt from a West Texas cotton field to a Chinese factory to trade negotiations in Washington, D.C., to a used clothing market in Africa, Rivoli helps unravel the politics and human side of the globalization debate, say critics.

It's a contemporary case study in the rapidly changing textile industry, says Jeff Cannon, adjunct professor in business history at Kenan-Flagler. Professors appreciate this book because they say it offers a compelling story and scholarship, and often books have one but not the other.

The rest of the world is certainly on the minds of many American businesspeople. That's why it was no surprise to hear that The Kite Runner (Riverhead Trade, 2004) by fiction newcomer Khaled Hosseini was the most popular suggestion on Rolf's list from Tuck students. Hosseini's debut novel is billed as both political chronicle and deeply personal tale. It's the story of Amir, an Afghan immigrant to the U.S. who is plagued by guilt for betraying his best friend back home. When his friend is killed by the Taliban, Amir returns to his homeland, a country now in turmoil, to search for his friend's surviving son and make up for his past mistakes.


  Critics say people should read this novel as much for the plot as the insight into Afghanistan's culture and future. Students are reading it because of the buzz, says Jamison Peschel, a rising second-year student at Tuck who hopes to read it after hearing rave reviews from others.

At the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the dean picks out some of the summer reading students will be doing. This year, Dean Jim Bradford selected Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2003) by Debra E. Meyerson as the required reading for all incoming MBA students, who'll discuss the book in small groups during orientation.

In it, Meyerson reveals how "everyday leaders," not necessarily those at the top of an organization, help create family-friendly and socially responsible workplaces. She offers innovative examples that should help students get a bird's-eye view of leadership. Or at least that's what Bradford hopes. "I want them to see how to exercise their own principles and values within an organization's structure," he adds.


  If the books that a person has on his shelf are an indication of the life he's seeking, then many of today's business academics are trying to make the world a better place -- and hoping to bring these lessons to students. Numerous professors are reading The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Penguin Press , 2005) by Jeffrey D. Sachs, who's famous for his philosophies on the world's stark divide between rich and poor nations.

By providing horrifying portraits of what life is like in the Third World, including one sketch of a Malawi village whose young people of working age have been completely wiped out by AIDS, Sachs calls readers to action. He presents his plan, which is based on 25 years of advising world leaders and international institutions, for eliminating poverty. "Sachs provides the intellectual underpinning for understanding the most important issue of our time, and with supporters like [entertainer and activist] Bono, the challenges he sets out may actually be attainable," says Burton "Buck" Goldstein, university entrepreneur in residence at Kenan-Flagler.

You could turn the pages of books all summer long -- if you had the time. MBA professors and students have loads of suggestions, from Daniel H. Pink's A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (Riverhead, 2005) to the upcoming release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic, 2005), the sixth in the series of children's fiction that has also captivated adults. Whether you'll be reading an intriguing novel on the beach or turning the pages of a business how-to on the subway, one thing is certain. Reading definitely is fundamental -- even to those dollars-and-cents guys.

Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Fort Lee, N.J.

Edited by Phil Mintz

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