Frankly speaking, it’s not been a stellar year for business books, or at least of the sort that would be worthy of our annual list for summer reading.
As you’ll see, at least one of the nominees is recommended with less than fulsome praise and another might appear to be a bit of a reach for this category (even though it’s likely to be the best book you’ll read in this or any other genre).
Still, we can find enough titles that will not just occupy your time but provide insights into business issues and trends that will be of value to business owners, employees, consumers and anyone else who’d like a little why and how to go with the what, when and where of daily events.
“Birdmen,” by Lawrence Goldstone. Well-known historian David McCullough has a new bio of the Wright Brothers, but Goldstone’s book — subtitled “the Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies” — gives a broader history of the development of commercial aviation. Everyone has heard the story of the two Dayton, Ohio, bicycle mechanics who taught themselves the groundbreaking principles of aeronautics.
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But then what? Why didn’t the Wrights end up controlling the industry they developed? As this book makes clear, they were done in by a failure to continue innovating and huge amounts of time, effort and money spent on litigation. “Birdmen” explains how aviation, an industry of considerable importance in these parts, got its commercial start, and how the pioneers of a technology can be swiftly left behind, a theme that is central to another book on this list.
“The Great Beanie Baby Bubble,” by Zac Bissonnette. We’ve all lived through bubbles, two recent favorites being dot-com stocks and home prices. Those we can sort of understand. But how do you account for the speculative hysteria over small, plush bean-stuff animals, which you can now find plastic bins of at many garage sales? “Mass delusion,” the phrase used in the subtitle of Bissonnette’s book, may be an irrational reason for such economic behavior, but it’s also about as accurate an explanation as is available, which becomes clear once you’ve read the story of the beanie baby phenomenon and the odd company and character behind it.
“Losing the Signal,” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. Speaking of bubbles and technology obsolescence, remember the Blackberry? It wasn’t so long ago that all the cool kids in the business world were carrying the handheld email devices, a point not-so-subtly reinforced by the “Sent from my Blackberry” tag appended to each message. But the era of Blackberry dominance was a short one, done in mainly by Apple, smartphones and tablets but also by failings of the parent company, Research In Motion, to even keep up, much less ahead (interestingly, the competitive threat RIM long worried about was Microsoft). As the authors note, the Blackberry saga is a cautionary tale that “the race for innovation has no finish line and that winners and losers can changes places in an instant.”
“Rust: The Longest War,” by Jonathan Waldman. This can be an exasperating book at times. The author’s attention and narrative wanders at times, as though even he’s not all that convinced that the topic is of interest to him, never mind readers. Which is too bad, because corrosion is a constant, expensive and potentially dangerous problem, as we tend to find out when a bridge or can linings give out, and what it takes to keep the contents from eating through a container, and the cleaning and inspection of the Alaska oil pipeline. The latter is an especially timely discussion given recent pipeline leaks, the aging of existing systems and construction of more pipelines to handle increased domestic production of oil and gas.
“The Boom,” by Russell Gold. And speaking of oil and gas, here’s a companion to a book on last year’s list, “The Frackers” by Gregory Zuckerman. Different perspectives, different cast of characters, but all valuable in understanding the controversies, benefits and risks of a technology that not only reshaped its own industry but (yet another subtitle alert) “ignited the American energy revolution and changed the world,” and is still doing so.
“The Boys in the Boat,” by Daniel James Brown. Read this book because it’s a fascinating look at economic life in the Northwest during the Depression (and what some students went through to pay for college). Read it because a company that is central to the story, Pocock Racing Shells, is still in business. Read it to better understand one of this region’s cultural underpinnings, and how a West Coast backwater became a power in the sport of rowing (which at one time was covered like a major sport).
Or heck, just read it because it’s engaging, compelling, touching and suspenseful even if you know the outcome, and worthy of all the hype and praise cast upon it. Yes, it’s that good.