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It’s going to be the summer with no summer, a cool and cloudy and damp stretch largely indistinguishable from the rest of the year around here and … no, wait, it’s going to be another scorcher of a summer with bright sun, cloudless skies and the once-green landscape turned a desiccated brown.
Whatever the weather decides to be between now and Labor Day, whether you’re lounging in the great outdoors to stay cool or huddled inside for warmth, you’ll be well outfitted for reading material with our annual mid-year list of business-related books worth your time, starting with two with strong local connections:
Seattle Prohibition, Brad Holden. Washington got a head start on Prohibition with the enactment of laws that went into effect in 1916 to close saloons. The state remained supposedly dry until repeal in the early 1930s, but as this book, subtitled “Bootleggers, Rumrunners & Graft in the Queen City,” shows, the region was awash in booze and the entrepreneurs who built an industry to provide it. Elements of this story may be familiar to those who know some regional history, but there are some fascinating tidbits, such as how the booze trade contributed to the city’s first radio station, and how a surplus of aircraft engines after the end of World War I contributed to the construction of ever faster boats to outrun the Coast Guard.
The Panic of 1893, Bruce Ramsey. In the late 19th century, nasty economic downturns were referred to not as recessions or depressions but panics. For the then-young state of Washington, the 1893 panic was especially nasty — 80 bank failures in four years. Tacoma was right in the thick of the economic maelstrom. This book provides fascinating insights into politics, business, society and daily life as it was lived in 1893. It’s also a cautionary tale — every time we have a downturn, we swear we’ve learned our lessons. And then we forget.
The World in a Grain, Vince Beiser. How can we be running out of sand? The deserts are overflowing with the stuff. As it turns out, it takes a particular kind of sand for the buildings, highways, airports and other stuff the modern world wants more of, and that’s what we’re running low on. Did you know there’s a global trade in stolen sand? You will after you read this book.
Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, Richard Ratay. It’s billed as “an informal history of the American road trip” and framed as one man’s nostalgic journey through memories of family vacations, but this book is really a sneaky way of delving into a lot of American business history, from the evolution of the automobile to the development of chains like Holiday Inn and Stuckey’s that thrived alongside and along with development of the interstate highway system.
Moneyland, Oliver Bullough. The world is awash in money that’s been stolen — sometimes from entire countries — and is looking for a safe and private haven. It’s moved around in a bewildering network of shell companies to obscure its source, parked in banks where the authorities collect fees for not asking inconvenient questions about its source and used to buy real estate in such global cities as London. This is far from a comprehensive look at the shadow global economy, but it does provide some insights into how the world really works.
Bad Blood, John Carreyrou. There’s a reason this book persists on the bestseller lists and has drawn the fascination of filmmakers. The underlying story of Theranos and its entrepreneur-founder is fascinating on multiple levels. It’s a case study of the perils of a too-good-to-be-checked tech story and the cult of the tech CEO taken to an extreme. Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, claimed to have developed technology that allowed a series of medical diagnosis tests to be run quickly from a few drops of blood. It was a lovely notion, and maybe someday we’ll have that technology. Theranos didn’t, but it managed to attract attention and money to its scheme, before one journalist began poking around.
None of My Business, P.J. O’Rourke. He’s long been a personal favorite, not just for his writing style but for his willingness throughout his career as an investigative humorist to go see for himself what was going on in the world, as well as an understanding that money was usually at the root of whatever trouble he happened to find. This is an entertaining mix of some earlier pieces and more contemporary ruminations on why most of us aren’t rich.
The Code, Margaret O’Mara. This one just arrived and hasn’t been read yet, but it’s being recommended for its subject matter (the origins of Silicon Valley) and its author’s local connection (she’s a history professor at the University of Washington). Silicon Valley has been such an incredible generator of innovation and wealth that everyone not there has spent years trying to replicate it. What was the magic formula that spontaneously combusted Silicon Valley into being? What could threaten its status as the world’s preeminent tech hub? We’ll see what the book has to say in answering those questions.
There, eight books that should keep you engrossed and enlightened, or at least distracted from whether you’re sweltering or shivering.