2013 Book Recommendations

By Bob Bruner-

“I cannot live without books.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, June 10, 1815)

This is my annual moment to channel UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson: Read more books! Effective leaders are sponges for new ideas and self-instruction. Therefore, anyone who aspires to make a difference in the world should read widely as a foundation for her or his growth in leadership. Blogs, newspapers, and magazines are important too (for my current reading of these, see this); but books are essential. In books, you gain a fuller development of an author’s argument, more detail and evidence, and most important, a greater chance for serendipity and the connect-the-dots “Aha!” in which you create new meaning. Give yourself a break: read a book. Here are some books that rocked my world over the past 12 months.

Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, pundits, provocateurs and politicians have argued that the world has changed in some fundamental way and will never be the same again. The implication is that we need to shed our old assumptions and get with the “new normal.” I’ve blogged about this in 2013 (see this, this, and this). Tyler Cowen’s, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, is a well-written and closely-argued assertion that America’s Golden Age (roughly 1945-1970) is gone. Since the 1600s, America has enjoyed the “low-hanging fruit” of free land, immigrant labor, and transformational technologies. He says that now we can only look forward to lower rates of growth and social mobility. I’m not entirely convinced that the future is as bad as he sees it. Just when conventional wisdom throws in the towel, growth picks up—the late 1970s are one example. Still, The Great Stagnation is a very stimulating read.

Stephen Greenblatt’s, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, claims that the Renaissance began with the discovery in 1406 of On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius, a Roman poet-philosopher. Lucretius advanced ideas such as the theory of the atom, heliocentrism, free will, and atheism. Greenblatt argues that the steady dissemination of Lucretius cracked the stranglehold of feudalism and Church dogma and triggered a new wave of scientific inquiry, political upheaval, the Reformation, cultural liberalization, the Enlightenment, and the Declaration of Independence. At the close of the book, Greenblatt links the ideas of Lucretius to Thomas Jefferson. In short, modernity began with the rediscovery of Lucretius and the ideas he articulated. That’s a sweeping claim, which I wish Greenblatt had anchored in a host of research on other forces that promoted the swerve to modernity (new technology, exploration, climate change, etc.) But the book is a very well-written brief for culture and the humanities as forces for change. Very relevant to business leaders who may be wondering about the impetus for some future “swerve”.

Two books challenge conventional wisdom on the causes and nature of the Great Depression—highly relevant to shaping our critical perspective on the problem of slow economic growth today.   Robert Higgs, Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity argues that the length and depth of the Great Depression were caused by under-investment by the private sector, which in turn was caused by uncertainty about the government’s new regulatory regime. Through the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt rolled out waves of new regulations, new taxes, and red tape; and business leaders hunkered down in confusion. Higgs writes, “The insufficiency of private investment from 1935 through 1940 reflected a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns. This uncertainty arose, especially, though not exclusively, from the character of the actions of the federal government and the nature of the Roosevelt administration.” This account of the Great Depression gives rather little attention to other possible causes or the possible benefits of government intervention. But there’s a plausible argument to be made that regime uncertainty is an important cause of relatively low investment in new plant and equipment today.  This next book is extremely well argued and documented, though to the lay reader it will seem technical and wonkish, a hard slog; but if you give the book the time and attention it deserves, you will be well-rewarded. Alexander J. Field’s, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth presents the astonishing claim that the 1930s in America were an episode of great innovation and advancement in productivity. Field wrote, “It was not principally the Second World War that laid the foundation for postwar prosperity. It was technological progress across a broad frontier of the American economy during the 1930s. Because of the Depression’s place in both the popular and academic imagination and the repeated and justifiable emphasis on output that wasn’t produced, income that wasn’t earned, and expenditure that didn’t take place, it will seem startling to propose the view that the years 1929-1941 were, in the aggregate, the most technologically progressive of any comparable period in economic history. This hypothesis entails two primary claims: first, during this period businesses and government contractors implemented or adopted on a more widespread basis a wide range of new technologies and practices, resulting in the highest rate of peacetime peak-to-peak total factor productivity growth in the century, and second, the Depression years produced advances that replenished and expanded the stock of unexploited or only partially exploited techniques, thus providing the basis for much of the labor and total factor productivity improvement in the 1950s and 1960s.” I cited this book in my webinar, “Desperately Seeking Growth” and challenged the audience to consider whether and where during the recent economic malaise technological advance was laying the foundation for future growth.

The U.S. has actually had at least three economic depressions: the “Great Depression” (1929-1940), the “Long Depression” (1872-1879) and a depression that lasted from 1837 to about 1848. When conventional wisdom thinks of economic depression, it summons up the 1930s. Yet the other two depressions were whoppers as well. Alasdair Roberts’ America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 gives an excellent account of the awful wreckage—and of the recovery unaided by government pump-priming and fueled by the California gold strike. To learn more about the “Long Depression,” I recommend 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently by Michael Bellesiles. By focusing on the nadir of that depression, the author weaves an extraordinary story of violent labor strikes, extreme poverty, and social strain. These two books give a sobering reminder that the stresses associated with our Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession are the rule, not the exception, of economic calamities. Severe economic inequality prompted the rise of organized labor after 1877. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street echo the surge of various populist movements. The rise of Golden Dawn in Greece recalls the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and of racist and anti-immigrant parties in American depressions. As Mark Twain said, “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

My UVA colleague, Professor Gary Gallagher, once told me, “You cannot fully understand America today without learning American history of the 19th Century.” For instance, America was the world’s high-growth emerging economy during the so-called “Gilded Age,” the 35 years following the Civil War. The economic expansion of those years laid the foundation for America’s economic leadership in the 20th Century. It is also true that those years give a picture of what “unfettered capitalism” looks like: buoyant, turbulent, and Darwinian. In pursuit of insights about this era, you should tuck into American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands. The book spares no criticism of people (Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford) or events. But Brands concludes, “The capitalist revolution was in many ways the best thing ever to befall the ordinary people of America.”

One of the intellectual giants of the late 19th Century in America was William James, a professor at Harvard. He was a physician, one of the founders of the field of psychology, and a philosopher, associated with the pragmatist school. A year ago, I read James’ Varieties of Religious Experience—his notion of the person “born again” through a faith experience is a foundational example of interpretive psychology. This led me to acquaint myself with the author. So I turned to Robert D. Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Richardson argues that William James was part of the tipping point of intellectual culture from Victorianism into modernism. This is an outstanding example of deep biography: very well-written and documented.

Another party to the tipping point of modernity at the close of the 19th Century would be Albert Einstein. Walter Isaacson’s Einstein is a highly readable biography (I’m a fan of Isaacson’s and also recommend his biography Steve Jobs.) Having discovered the theory of relativity in his twenties, Einstein struggled the rest of his life with fame, and the effort to link the various theories of physics into a General Field Theory. His struggle is a worthy reminder to business leaders about the difficulties of scientific discovery and of the personalities that engender them.

I enjoyed Good Prose: the Art of Nonfiction; Stories and Advice from a Lifetime of Writing and Editing by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd for their brilliant perspectives on memoirs, narratives and essays. This book is essentially a dialog between Kidder and his long-standing editor, Richard Todd. For instance, this: “Self-exploration, including confession, almost always involves other people. Some of them are bound to be offended by an honest memoir. But the good and honest memoir is neither revenge nor self-justification, neither self-celebration nor self-abnegation. It is a record of learning. Memoirs, by definition, look backward. They are one response to Kierkegaard’s dilemma that life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward.” I’ve enjoyed Tracy Kidder’s writing ever since reading his Soul of a New Machine over 30 years ago—and I recommend that book too.

Last year, I recommended Personal Memoirs by President Ulysses S. Grant. He stands as one of the more problematic American Presidents. On one hand, he was a brilliant general, who brought the Civil War to conclusion. Grant’s philosophy of battle was straightforward: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” On the other hand, his Presidency was marred by corruption among his associates. In the periodic rankings of Presidents, Grant would typically wind up in the basement. But in recent years, historians have reassessed the man and his impact arriving at a more positive conclusion. This year, I read two very good biographies of Grant—simultaneously. I did this to gain insights not only about Grant, but also about the craft of historians and biographers: what details should be included? How should the story be told? And ultimately, what is the historian’s judgment and on what is it based? Grant, a leader of many strengths and dark psychological complexity is an excellent study for anyone interested in how one learns and wields leadership. I highly recommend both biographies: Jean Edward Smith’s, Grant, and H.W. Brands’, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.

Civilian control of the military is fertile territory for thinking about effective governance and qualities of leadership: how should general managers lead technical experts?  The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today by Thomas Ricks is a very good starting point. Ricks argues that America’s great wartime Presidents frequently cashiered generals who failed to deliver results. But starting with the Vietnam War, Presidents grew lax and general command became an entitlement for years in service. Ricks is unstinting in his damnation of incompetents or praise for great leaders. His profile of Marine General Chesty Puller and the heroic stand at Chosun Reservoir in the Korean War is inspiring. Ricks’ conclusions about generals are highly relevant for business leaders: “Having adaptive, flexible military leaders who also are energetic, determined, cooperative, and trustworthy is probably more important now than it has been at any time…Tolerance of below-average performance has a corrosive effect on the quality of leadership…carry out a cultural shift that enables (the organization) to embrace accountability, rather than shun it…We also should reward commanders who cultivate and maintain cultures in which their subordinates feel free to exercise initiative and speak their minds freely… abide by the belief that the lives of soldiers are more important than the careers of officers—and that winning wars is more important than either.”

Vigilance, attention to detail, meddlesomeness, critical thinking, urgency, and fearless challenge to common assumptions—these and other qualities stand out as distinguishing excellent wartime civilian leaders. Martin Gilbert’s Winston Churchill’s War Leadership, profiles a civilian leader who infuriated the top brass with his pushiness into areas they deemed their special province of expertise. Elliot Cohen’s, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, affirms this portrait of Churchill and adds chapters on other exemplary wartime civilian leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, and David Ben-Gurion. This book challenges the conventional thinking that civilian leaders should set policy goals and leave it to the military leaders to implement. The profile of these four leaders is highly relevant to enterprise leadership in the private sector. Cohen wrote, “Extreme circumstances…enable us to see more clearly what great leaders do and of what they are made. If one wishes to study the finest steel, best to search for the hottest furnace.”

Defense procurement in peacetime may seem like an unlikely venue in which to consider leadership. But it illustrates that leadership is not just about command; it must also be about policy, process, and politics. In a farewell address in 1959, President Eisenhower warned against the rise of the military-industrial complex—today, we think of it as the “iron triangle” of interdependence of interests among the Pentagon, Congress, and defense contractors. James Ledbetter’s Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex, will persuade the reader that Presidential control of military procurement is incredibly difficult. The politics, process, and policy of defense procurement as they affect leadership are especially relevant today, in the face of budget cuts in the Federal Government. I wish that the author had addressed the geopolitical implications of maintaining America’s status as the sole superpower. Maintaining the industrial base necessary to support the defense posture of the country is “table stakes” for hegemony. If there’s a better way to organize and control defense production, Ledbetter doesn’t say. Still, I recommend the book as a stimulus for business leaders to consider the impact of complicated currents of interest at the interface of the public and private sectors.

The humor columnist, Dave Barry, once wrote, “The world is full of strange phenomena that cannot be explained by the laws of logic or science. Dennis Rodman is only one example.” Business offers others. As an assignment in our student seminar this fall, we read Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. It’s a “must read” for novices in Mergers and Acquisitions. The book recounts the bidding war to control RJR Nabisco in 1990. I have used the story to teach concepts in the area of auctions and negotiations as well as a host of behavioral phenomena, such as deal frenzy. Barbarians reads like a gripping soap opera—again, Dave Barry said, “you can’t make this stuff up.” I have heard that some protagonists denied having said some of the things attributed to them in the book. But even as fiction, the book reminds business professionals that a toxic mix of incentives and emotions can lead to nasty behavior: deception, power plays, betrayal, venality, and self-dealing. I’m sometimes asked by business schools should teach ethics. This book shows that even late-age adults can use ethical reminders. As the Renaissance maps of the world would indicate about distant regions, the book tells us, “here be dragons.”

I read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in connection with a visit to Cuba. The book captures the atmosphere there and tells a remarkable story of determination by an unlucky old fisherman who is suddenly faced with reeling in the biggest catch of his life. The moral of the story is best summed up by this quotation: “But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Hemingway was deemed past his peak when he wrote the book; yet Old Man and the Sea was instrumental in him winning the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. A quick and inspiring read.

Bonus Recommendation: This evening, I saw the movie, The Book Thief. It considers the value of books and writing in the context of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Strong story and excellent acting. I recommend it.

Department of “Huh?” Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “adults are gobbling up books aimed at middle-schoolers.” Good enough if such books are the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath. But teeny romance novels and such don’t give a very high return on reading. As I’ve advised in each of my annual book recommendations, don’t read junk. There is so much good material to read; life is short. Start with the best.

I hope these recommendations are helpful. Read and enjoy. Better yet, read and grow as a leader.