Business books for summer reading

contributing writerJuly 15, 2012 

It’s not summer without your annual list of business books. So here goes:

“The Quest,” Daniel Yergin. The only drawback to Yergin’s sweeping, encyclopedic history of the oil industry, “The Prize,” was where it stopped – 1990. There’s been a lot of history since then, not just with oil but with natural gas, nuclear, coal, renewables, conservation, geopolitical struggles and climate change, and they all affect each other. Yergin’s latest book pulls those pieces together. “Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World” sounds like too broad a theme to be crammed into one book, even one of this length (816 pages). Yergin pulls it off in a readable style. This is essential background material for understanding the context of so many issues today.

“Wine Wars,” Mike Veseth. Forget the gauzy images of sun-dappled vineyards. Wine is a global, multibillion-dollar business, and who better to explain how it got that way than University of Puget Sound wine economist Mike Veseth. “Wine Wars” provides some terrific insights into how and why the wine you see in your local grocery store got there, and why you buy (or don’t) the wine you do. Along the way Veseth entertainingly wraps in wine pop-culture references – Blue Nun, Two Buck Chuck (but what, no mention of Mateus?) – and explains how they fit into the story. And what other analysis of a global industry would name-check so many local references, like Tacoma Boys, Costco and Met Market’s Proctor store? Even if you aren’t a wine snob, you’ll get a lot of perspective on an industry that is a significant economic presence in Washington state.

“The Lost Bank,” Kirsten Grind. This history of Washington Mutual’s rise and fall was the subject of a column earlier this year, but it’s worth inclusion in this story to understand just how the debacle, not only for the company but the entire housing-finance sector, really occurred.

“The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America,” Marc Levinson. Also a repeat from an earlier discussion. Long before Amazon, before Walmart, A&P was the great American mass retailer and chain store, with all the controversies that come with that status. One interesting aspect to the story is how A&P became an also-ran in a business model it helped pioneer.

“Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN,” James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, and “I Want My MTV,” Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. These may look like pop-culture histories, but they’re really business case studies of building businesses that many people dismissed (“24 hours of music videos or sports? Who would watch that?”). They’re also worth comparing and contrasting to see how ESPN continues to build on its original model, while MTV largely abandoned it.

“Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back,” Robert Levine. Obviously this is a subject of considerable interest to those of us in the daily fishwrap business. Newspapers are not the only ones struggling with how to build a business model on free content, as Levine traces what has happened to the music, movie and book-publishing industries.

“Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in 15 Cars,” Paul Ingrassia. All right, this one is cheating a bit. All of the other books on the list have been read and approved by your columnist. This one is on the “to be read” shelf, but it gets on this list on the strength of Ingrassia’s previous writing about the auto industry and an intriguing subject that might provide an interesting accompaniment to Tacoma’s newest museum.

There, that should keep you busy for a while.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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