Summer Reading List: The B-School Edition

The hazy days of summer are no time to be lazy if you're heading to business school in the fall. Getting a jump start on your studies by reading books that will inspire, motivate, and teach is never a bad idea, writes Janet G. Marcantonio, executive professor at Texas A&M University's Mays Business School (Mays Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail. "If you're entering or headed back to business school, [books] will freshen your intellectual larder and spur your growth as a leader," Marcantonio says.

To create a summer reading list for business students, Bloomberg Businessweek asked top ranked B-schools to each have two professors share their list of must-read books. Business professors and deans have suggested everything from timeless literary (think Shakespeare) and modern business (think Thomas Friedman) classics to advice books on marketing, writing, and career-building. (To see an extended list of recommendations that did not make it into this story, check out this blog post.)

Four books appeared on more than one person's list. Each shed some light on what led to the recent financial crisis or upon human nature and behavior. Here's a roundup of the books that appeared most frequently on the more-than-25 recommendation lists we gathered:

With the recent financial crisis (and growing fears about the future of overseas economies, such as those in Europe) fresh on the minds of business professors, business schools are asking future business leaders to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. The book that appeared most often is The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W. W. Norton, February 2011) by Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker (W.W. Norton, reprint, March 2010), an autobiographical account of his disillusionment while working on Wall Street during the heady 1980s, and The Blind Side (W.W. Norton, movie tie-in edition, October 2009), which was turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Sandra Bullock.

A Jargon-Rich Page-Turner

Like Lewis's other books, The Big Short, say professors, is a quick read because it's written as a narrative. It follows those who saw the economic implosion coming and shares their personal stories. Although some readers have criticized the book for being heavy on financial jargon, business students should have no trouble understanding Lewis.

"The Big Short describes the small set of individuals who saw what was about to happen and found a way to bet against the investments that almost brought down the economy," writes James W. Dean Jr., dean of UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School (Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail. "Truth really is stranger than fiction."

While everyone is trying to make sense of the mortgage meltdown, many are also looking to improve their lives—from financial portfolio to physique—as a means of getting over the current events. That might be why a few professors put the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Penguin, February 2009,) by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, on their lists. Essentially, Nudge is about helping people, even nudging them, to make better choices when it comes to everything from their finances to the food they eat by explaining why humans are simultaneously smart and stupid. Ideally, readers walk away from this book with greater self-awareness and motivation to lead healthier and wealthier lives. "It is a fun and informative read," writes Steve Walton, associate professor in the practice of information systems and operations management at Emory's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail.

The Virtues of Snap Thinking

Indeed, training oneself to be better was somewhat of a theme among the reading lists. A few professors suggested Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Back Bay Books, April 2007) by Malcolm Gladwell, which is about how to improve one's ability to make snap judgments. "Building his case with scenes from a marriage, heart-attack triage, speed dating, choking on the golf course, selling cars, and military maneuvers, [Gladwell] persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of 'thin slices' of behavior," according to the site review. One professor saw the book as a marketing lesson, too. "[It's a] good look into how experts make decisions," writes Rajkumar Venkatesan, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile), in an e-mail. "I found it to be an interesting read also for understanding some consumer choices."

Understanding people is ever more important in the new-new economy. Business people are supposed to be softer and more in tune with the human side of man. The Social Animal (Random House, March 2011) by David Brooks earned a few votes from business professors for its bid to explain why people behave the way they do. Brooks has insisted that his is not a science book, notwithstanding his hope that the findings of the research he culled from various sources on brain formation can help people better understand themselves and change the way they do things, including conducting business.

Joshua Perry, assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business (Kelley Full-Time MBA Profile), calls The Social Animal a "captivating primer" for true leaders who want to read people well. "If you are going to succeed in business school and beyond, understanding, motivating, and leading others will be essential," writes Perry in an e-mail. "Do not bother making plans to enter the C-suite until you are familiar with the vast literature on social and emotional intelligence, behavioral economics, neuroscience, positive psychology, and other empirical explanations for the conscious (and unconscious) contours of our lives."

To discuss the books on this list—or suggest a few of your own—join in the conversation at the Bloomberg Businessweek Business Schools Forum.

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