What Makes a 'Best' Business Book?

A new compilation of the "best" business titles in management and other areas misses a chance to relate to today's troubled climate, says BW's Hardy Green

Reflect on your favorite five movies, and you'll have a nice reverie. Share that list with a friend, and you've got an argument on your hands. "A Fish Called Wanda? You're insane!"

A similar conundrum faces Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten, authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help YouThe 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You (Portfolio, 2009). Almost every business-book reader will find a way to take exception to the Covert-Sattersten list.

The authors are both executives with Internet bookseller 800-CEO-READ, but they insist that their volume isn't just a come-on to stimulate sales for their business. "It's our attempt at helping the modern businessperson find solutions," says Covert.

If nothing else, 100 Best may spark a debate about what makes for a "great" business book. It devotes two or three pages to each of its choices. The emphasis here is on management (29 titles), while biography, business narratives, and "big ideas" (7, 6, and 8 titles, respectively) are downplayed. The authors say they asked three questions to make their selections: Is the book accessible? Is it applicable to business today rather than, say, merely of historical importance? And does it provide a high-quality idea that's helpful to executives?

Older Volumes?

But consider their choices of business narratives, and the holes in the list really pop out. There's McDonald's: Behind the Arches by John F. Love (Bantam, 1995), Moneyball by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2004), and even The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (Portfolio, 2004). No Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (Collins, 1990)? And nothing on their list is particularly recent. What about something like The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler (Gotham Books, 2007)? What about entries on Silicon Valley or the digital world, such as Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know by Randall Stross (Free Press, 2008)?

Or, alternatively, look at their list of management titles. Of course there's The Essential Drucker (Collins, 2008), a collection of excerpts from the legendary management guru's books, along with quality champion W. Edwards Deming's Out of the Crisis (MIT Press, 2000). But soon the choices get really flaky: Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) is drawn from the execrable genre of business fables, such as Who Moved My Cheese? Do we really need both Marcus Buckingham best-sellers, First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (Free Press, 2001)? Once again, one wonders, what about something more recent? Why not The Game Changer by P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan (Crown Business, 2008)?

Finance and economics titles would seem to be a natural, especially in today's troubled financial climate—but Covert and Sattersten include almost none. Guys, take a look at the current business best-seller lists, and you'll discover what readers are interested in now. Such titles as Charles R. Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (Public Affairs, 2008), or Charles D. Ellis' The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs (Penguin Press, 2008), or Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics (Norton, 1999 and revised in 2009) are hot sellers this week. For an oldie but goodie, you could even include John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 (Mariner Books, 1954), a paperback best-seller today.

No Ben Graham?

One could go on and on—and no doubt, others who glance at The 100 Best Business Books of All Time will. I gather that Covert and Sattersten omitted Benjamin Graham's classic The Intelligent Investor (HarperCollins, 1949) and Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street (Norton, 1973) as inaccessible. Tell that to the millions of people who have bought and read these books. The list includes When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein (Random House 2001)—but not Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker (Norton, 1989).

One real problem, I suspect, is the authors' narrow way of looking at "applicability," or the usefulness of a book to executives today. In other words, what's the takeaway? A too-strict consideration of this criterion pushes the authors in the direction of books that come with enumerated rules and away from accounts of the past or even the immediate present. But the most valuable books are those that consider paradox, personalities, and eternal problems, prompting reflection and forcing you to figure out your own rules.

Am I wrong? Let me know what you think.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.