Bill Virgin: Plenty of options for delving into books about business this summer

July 6, 2014 

Back in the dark ages of public education, schools did not send their students home for the summer with assigned reading. If students wanted to rot their brains with their preferred summer reading material — mainly Mad magazine — that was their (and their parents’) problem.

But the students of today spend summer vacation curled up with books that fall into the general category of Earnest, Important and Dull, drawn from schools’ mandatory reading lists.

You parents can set a good example for your children this summer by reading important books from our annual list of recommended business books. The good news for you is that these books are columnist-tested and approved as being both informative and interesting.

“Flash Boys,” Michael Lewis: Think you know how stocks get traded? You’ll be thoroughly disabused of that notion after reading this enlightening book about how most shares are actually traded these days (those TV shots of traders on the floor of the NYSE? Purely a prop), and the gamesmanship involved in shaving fractions of seconds off the transmission of price information.

“Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece,” Mike Gastineau: In the hierarchy of local professional-sports franchises, the Seahawks clearly are first — winning a Super Bowl will do that for you. In second? You could make an argument that it’s the Sounders soccer team, which veteran radio sports-talk host Mike Gastineau describes as the most successful launch of a U.S. pro-sports operation. This isn’t a sports book (you won’t get long descriptions of games) as much as it is a business case study, with great anecdotal detail illustrating how this odd collection of personalities (including Paul Allen and Drew Carey) pulled it off.

“China’s Second Continent,” Howard French: There’s a new scramble for Africa to grab the continent’s resources and a share of its economic potential, but this time the scramble is dominated by one player, China. This scramble looks somewhat different in other ways; China is not only exporting capital to Africa, it’s sending people. As the subtitle describes it, “A million migrants are building a new empire.” French traveled around the continent, and his interviews and experiences illustrate the often uncomfortable relationship between China and Africa.

“Ninety Percent of Everything,” Rose George: Tacoma likes to think of itself as a major player in international maritime trade, but not a lot of thought is given to what goes on when those ships disappear over the horizon. Rose George hitched a ride on a container ship to get first-hand perspective on the economics, risks (i.e. piracy) and the people behind those metal boxes that arrive and depart.

“The Everything Store,” Brad Stone: Who is Jeff Bezos? How did he make e-commerce work when so many failed? Lots of great insight into the Amazon.com story and the man behind it.

“Water 4.0,” David Sedlak: Talk about a vital part of life that gets little attention. Do you know how water gets to your home, or what happens when it leaves? David Sedlak walks readers through the history of water and sewage treatment, and without being too doomsdayish about it discusses the looming problems and challenges in providing adequate supplies of clean water and handling it once it’s used.

“The Aviators,” Winston Groom: Three of the biggest names in American aviation and how they shaped it – Charles Lindbergh, James Doolittle and Eddie Rickenbacker. The last of those three in particular had an extensive business career; Rickenbacker, a race-car driver, lent his name to an auto manufacturer (the LeMay museum has had one on display) and was later head of Eastern Airlines.

“Fizz,” Tristan Donovan: How did fizzy water come to dominate the beverage world? Here’s the history of the evolution of the soft drink, and yes, it’s a lot more involved than Coke vs. Pepsi.

“Extreme Wine,” Mike Veseth: Veseth made a specialty of wine-industry economics at the University of Puget Sound. In his second book on the subject he examines the industry’s extremes — best, worst, cheapest, most expensive, celebrity wines and the remote corners of the world attempting to build a wine industry.

“The Frackers,” Gregory Zuckerman: True, your columnist isn’t all the way through this one yet, but it’s been fascinating so far to read just how the revolution in oil and gas production in the U.S. (making energy independence a real possibility and helping restore competitiveness to manufacturing) came to be, and the people who made it come to be.

“The Circle,” David Eggers: It’s rare that a work of fiction appears on this list, but this novel, set in a corporate mash-up of Google and Facebook, hits so many of contemporary Big Questions of privacy, personal information, the pervasiveness of technology and corporate power as to be far more debate-provoking than a dozen nonfiction tomes on those subjects.

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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