The best books of the year have two stories to tell: How we got into this economic crisis (and how we can prevent it from happening again) and how there's a class of companies wreaking their own brand of havoc on their industries. Both offer fascinating tales of innovation, and you'll learn everything from the secret underpinning some of the world's fastest-growing companies to strategies and insights for building a more sustainable society in the wake of the recession.

"In Cheap We Trust" by Lauren Weber

This history of frugality in America--why it's been stigmatized and whether there's a sustainable alternative to a purely consumption-based economy--is consistently surprising and clever. A very worthwhile indulgence.

Essence in a quote: "The fact is, as [Ben] Franklin well knew, Americans have had a troubled, complicated relationship with frugality almost since the first boatloads of Puritans landed on these shores."

"Viral Loop" by Adam L. Penenberg

No book better explains the rocket-ship growth of a service like Facebook or Twitter and how their rapid spread through the culture isn't accidental but carefully baked into the product.

Essence in a quote: "The trick is they created something people really want, so much so that their customers happily spread their product for them through their own social network of friends, family, colleagues, and peers."

"Create Your Own Economy" by Tyler Cowen

At first glance, our time communicating with friends on Facebook, Googling, organizing photos on Flickr, and other social activity seems like a waste of time. But Cowen, an economist, provocatively argues that they are all forms of economic activity and we need to account for the internal production inside our minds.

Essence in a quote: "Facebook and Twitter are fun, but they don't generate that much in the way of traditional revenue and jobs. More and more of our economic growth is coming in such forms. This is one unnoticed side effect of our financial crisis. We're still having a kind of economic growth, but it shows up less in the statistics. Our economy will need to make some very sudden adjustments. This will be beneficial in the long run but right now we are feeling the revenue squeeze very acutely, in part because few people expected this."

"Bright-Sided" by Barbara Ehrenreich

The author of Nickel and Dimed gleefully pops the positive-thinking bubble that, she argues, has propped up everything from banks' belief in complex derivatives to the pink-ribboned industry surrounding breast cancer. Amazingly, she'll make you laugh, albeit ruefully, as she presents how society's relentless focus on being upbeat has eroded our ability to ask--and heed--the kind of uncomfortable questions that could have fended off economic disaster.

Essence in a quote: "[Positive thinking] was also a liberating ideology for top-level executives. What was the point in agonizing over balance sheets and tedious analyses of risk--and why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults--when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?"

"Googled" by Ken Auletta

Hardly a week goes by without someone describing Google as "the most important company in the history of the world." Veteran media reporter and New Yorker writer Ken Auletta has the inside scoop on how Google reached such heights in such short order, and he explores its relentless ambitions and the impact that insatiability has across the rest of the media landscape.

Essence in a quote: "If we solve search," Google cofounder Larry Page told a class at Stanford in 2002, "that means you can answer any question. Which means you can do basically anything."

"Busted" by Edmund Andrews

The "innovations" that led to the housing crisis and economic meltdown are made concrete--and all the more damning--when told through the personal story of the author, who bought too much house for all the wrong reasons and found himself on the wrong side of the American dream.

Essence in a quote: "I had succumbed to the same foolish temptations that had trapped millions of other Americans. My credit scores were shot. Bill collectors called constantly. I was flirting with foreclosure. Almost none of our friends and neighbors had any idea how close to the edge my wife Patty and I were. Like countless others trapped in the mortgage meltdown, we looked like average suburban homeowners."

"Change by Design" by Tim Brown

The CEO of the uber design-firm Ideo takes us on a journey through the flexibility and power of design thinking that also serves as a primer on Ideo's evolving larger ambitions. Brown convincingly depicts how design can be used to improve the every day utility of objects we might take for granted, but more important, how it can address larger societal issues such as health care, education, and economic opportunity in the developing world.

Essence in a quote: "Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous. The integrated approach at the core of the design process suggests a 'third way.'"

"Adland" by James Othmer

State-of-the-industry advertising manifestos are usually written by titans of the business, not former mid-level creatives who bounced around a number of large agencies. Yet this unlikely guide is the perfect one to take us through the apocalypse current roiling "Adland." Othmer shows us what's wrong about the old model by telling war stories with a jaundiced eye, and he then uses that same eye to look in on the cutting-edge, next-generation "don't call us an ad agency" creative shops defining the future.

Essence in a quote: "Instead of the traditional copywriter/art-director dynamic employed by most ad agencies, 42 Entertainment (which is also the company behind the campaign for the highly successful launch of the box-office-record-breaking Batman film The Dark Knight) typically relies on its alternate-reality-game background and involves everyone from sci-fi authors and sitcom writers to video game developers to create an experience that they say is exponentially more engaging and immersive than any traditional TV commercial."

"In-N-Out Burger" by Stacy Perman

The West Coast burger chain with an international cult of fans is a paragon of simplicity, from its menu of burgers, fries, and shakes to how it slowly grows its business. Perman constructs the building blocks of In-N-Out's success and presents them in stark relief to the rest of the fast-food industry, depicting how strong values-based businesses can trump their peers on their own terms. And as In-N-Out's story also shows, abiding principles can even overcome the most lurid behind-the-scenes drama.

Essence in a quote: "'Keep it real simple,' [In-N-Out founder Harry Snyder] always said. 'Do one thing and do it the best you can.'"

"Strategy for Sustainability" by Adam Werbach

The noted environmentalist lays out his green business ideas, formed by working with the likes of Sierra Club and Wal-Mart, for how corporations can be a force for good on the planet.

Essence in a quote: "I began identifying the simple rules that nature follows to survive conditions far harsher than the worst market meltdown. Working with rather than against large corporations, which are members of ecosystems in their own right, I looked for strategic and operational solutions to their sustainability problems in the longest-running and still functioning system on Earth--the planet itself."

The Best Business Books of 2009

The best books of the year have two stories to tell: How we got into this economic crisis (and how we can prevent it from happening again) and how there's a class of companies wreaking their own brand of havoc on their industries. Both offer fascinating tales of innovation, and you'll learn everything from the secret underpinning some of the world's fastest-growing companies to strategies and insights for building a more sustainable society in the wake of the recession.

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