With just a week left before the unofficial end of what has been a relentless summer of business news — the fate of Greece, the economic woes of China and the market roller coaster in the United States — hopefully you might find the time to read a book.
I’m obsessed with business books, especially ones that provide insight into the people behind the companies and inventions that drive the global economy. I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites from the past year. There are incisive biographies, gripping narratives and thoughtful industry overviews — but they all give readers an understanding of the human drama behind every business saga.
At the top of my list is a book about the most interesting entrepreneur of the moment, Elon Musk. Between Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity, Mr. Musk has revolutionized the automobile industry, space exploration and clean energy. While questions remain about the lofty values and sustainability of Mr. Musk’s businesses, Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” gives readers a glimpse of what drives the 44-year-old South African dreamer. The book is particularly revelatory about Mr. Musk’s childhood, revealing an abusive father and a difficult time at school, where he was bullied by his peers.
“For some reason they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop,” he told Mr. Vance. “And then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well.” Says a schoolmate of Mr. Musk: “Honestly, there were just no signs that he was going to be a billionaire.”
At a time when great wealth and inequality are topics of growing concern, “The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger,” by Greg Steinmetz, a former journalist turned securities analyst, introduces an obscure but fascinating business titan. Jacob Fugger, a German banker in the 15th century, “could have been a Russian oligarch, a Latin American telecoms boss or an American railroad baron from the 19th century,” Mr. Steinmetz says. The grandson of a peasant, Fugger was an enterprising and sometimes insufferably confident man who cornered the copper market in Europe and then became one of the world’s most influential bankers, counting even the pope as a client.
If you’re thinking of creating the next billion-dollar start-up, or just trying to understand the psyche of today’s Silicon Valley, read Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.” I’ve read it several times and each time I learn something new from Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal turned venture capitalist with early stakes in Facebook and LinkedIn. One of his rules: “A company does better the less it pays its C.E.O.” Mr. Thiel says he won’t invest in a company that pays its C.E.O. more than $150,000 because he thinks a “cash-poor” executive will be hungrier to create value and it sets a good example to the rest of the company. He also argues that engineers often fail to appreciate the importance of ensuring that a product will sell in the marketplace.
“If anything, people overestimate the relative difficulty of science and engineering, because the challenges of those fields are obvious,” Mr. Thiel writes. “What nerds don’t realize is that it also takes hard work to make sales look easy.” And the next time you have to interview a job candidate, you might want to try Mr. Thiel’s favorite question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Bethany McLean’s new book, “Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants,” is a detailed examination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. More academic reading than beach fare, this slim yet dense volume explores the history of Fannie and Freddie and the controversial role that the government-sponsored entities continue to play in the recovering housing market, seven years after the financial crisis.
If you have a cross-country plane ride coming up, pick up a copy of “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice,” by Bill Browder. It is part John Grisham-like thriller, part business and political memoir, and in it Mr. Browder, an early hedge-fund investor in Russia, tells the story of how the Kremlin raided his fund, kicked him out of the country and perpetrated an elaborate financial fraud. The lawyer he hires to investigate the crime is murdered, and Mr. Browder seeks to avenge his death. It’s a hard book to put down.
My favorite kind of business books are deeply reported fly-on-the-wall narratives that put the reader in the middle of the action while telling an important story at the same time. “Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money,” by Nathaniel Popper, is an artfully told tale of the origins of bitcoin. Maybe I’m biased because Mr. Popper is a colleague at The New York Times and I encouraged him to write it, but everywhere I go, people on Wall Street and Silicon Valley praise the book. Whether Bitcoin turns out to be a lasting currency or the latest financial fad, it will have had a major impact on the future of electronic currency. This book is the best story of the roots of that future thus far.
If you’re interested in the business of sports, “The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse,” by Molly Knight, gets inside the financial machinations of a modern Major League Baseball franchise, from the team’s intriguing new owners, a group led by Guggenheim Partners, who paid a record $2.15 billion for the club, to its sale of lucrative television broadcast rights to Time Warner Cable. For baseball fans, there are also illuminating portraits of the Dodgers’ star players and its manager, the former Yankees great Don Mattingly.
Finally, the television industry is in the midst of a transformation — the cord-cutting phenomenon is for real as viewers replace their cable and satellite TV subscriptions with streaming services like Netflix. But Michael Wolff, the irascible media critic, wrote a somewhat contrarian book, “Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age.” He argues that unlike the music and newspaper industries, television will benefit rather than suffer from “disruption.” I’m not sure whether he’s right or wrong, but the book will make you think.
If you can’t get to any of these during the waning days of summer, the next two books on my reading list will be published this fall: Ben S. Bernanke’s memoir of his time as chairman of the Federal Reserve, “The Courage to Act: A Memoir of a Crisis and Its Aftermath,” which will most likely play into the debate on the Fed and interest rates; and Anne Marie-Slaughter’s “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family,” a book that will continue the country’s conversation about workplace culture.
I’m obsessed with business books, especially ones that provide insight into the people behind the companies and inventions that drive the global economy. I’ve compiled a […]