Summer Reading for Smart Leaders

Skip the business books when you head for the beach, and try novels that teach leadership, purpose, and ambition.

It's summer! Time to get out of the bookstore's business aisles and over to the fiction department, where, surprise, you'll find ideas and inspiration in novels that on their face have nothing to do with business. We picked 10 books with the help of readers, our staff, contributors, execs, and lit professors. Despite their far-flung plots — from feudal Japan to the future — all explore themes of leadership, purpose, and ambition. And because they're fiction, they'll help stretch the meaning of words like "worth," "equity," and "values." Plus, each will let you kick sand in the faces of the 98-pound weaklings drudging through yet another celebrity-CEO autobiography.

Rage Against the Machine

Catch-22 | By Joseph Heller

1961

You need an MBA to get promoted, but if you go to school, you'll lose your job. That's a Catch-22. In this merciless dissection of bureaucracy, Heller questions the inane and invisible laws every bureaucratic hierarchy depends on. The result is both hilarious and painfully familiar. The setting may be a World War II B-25 squadron, but its lessons extend to the office park. Ambitious but realistic, the story's hero, Yossarian, is always at odds with the faceless system he serves. At times a eulogy for rational civilization, the book is also hopeful: Submission to a system doesn't deny all hope.

Put Your Back Into It

The Music of Chance | By Paul Auster

1990

Boston fireman James Nashe gets a sudden windfall when his estranged father dies. So what does he do? Quits his job, buys a new car, and hits the road, naturally. But the joys of freeloading, sadly, aren't the message here. It's more a rumination on risk, responsibility, and the nature of work and wealth. After hooking up with a shiftless card shark, Nashe finds his fortune is soon reduced to IOUs. To make good on his debts, he has to build a 2,000-foot wall from 600-year-old stones. Working relentlessly, Nashe finds purity and validation witnessing the fruits of his labors. In a climate of soaring productivity, this book will leave you asking, What exactly do I produce? How do I add value?

Rebel, Rebel

The Moviegoer | By Walker Percy

1961

A world-weary burnout case, Binx Bolling is a New Orleans stockbroker on the cusp of his 30th birthday. Though he grasps at life and reality through the silver screen, Bolling's cool disenchantment is balanced by a warm insight, charm, and humor (yes, existentialism can be funny). At the heart of the book is Bolling's search for a sense of purpose. Failing to find it in work, film, or women, he searches from Mardi Gras to marriage and med school. Bolling's quest — and the book's final revelation — delivers just enough rebellion to inspire the revolutionary and just enough convention to satisfy the pragmatic.

Globe-Trotters

Shogun | By James Clavell

1975

It's not The Art of War, but it's close. Clavell's complex, page-turning saga about a British sailor in 16th-century Japan is a story of politics, cultural differences, and saving one's ass. The plotlines threaded throughout the book (East meets West, civil war, religious upheaval) resonate just as soundly in today's global business culture as they do in Japan's historical one. Though a dog-eared Shogun won't make half the desk ornament The Art of War would, Clavell's storytelling will expand in your mind long after the book itself has begun to gather dust.

The "Why?" in You

Siddhartha | By Hermann Hesse

1922

Looking for an easy segue into Eastern philosophy, yet something short of quitting your job and giving up all your worldly possessions? Hesse's lyric parable of a young Brahmin searching for spiritual enlightenment in the 6th century BC is a tonic to the harried pace of Western capitalism and a guide in our ever vigilant search for balance. Readers follow the title character through various encounters in a vain quest for enlightenment, from asceticism to profligacy. When these pursuits leave him empty, Siddhartha seeks solace in a simple life as a ferryman's apprentice. In his humble station surrounded by nature, the book's message of harmony is finally realized. Work and life, though separate, are the same. To be fulfilling, each must justify the other.

Finding Identity in the Information Age

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World | By Haruki Murakami

1985

It's the future, so of course twin underground agencies are battling for control of humanity's most precious commodity: information. The action follows a Japanese programming whiz with a high-tech switchboard installed in his brain. He's soon the target of marauding henchmen and mysterious INKlings (long story). In short: He's your classic man in the middle. Divided between reality and a dream world, two versions of the same character wrestle with their roles in society and the vast, shifting powers that impede their goals and direct their lives.

Ambition versus Consequence

All the King's Men | By Robert Penn Warren

1946

Loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey Long, hayseed Willie Stark glad-hands his way to the top, betrays his roots, and gets his comeuppance. But there is redemption here too. Jack Burden, Stark's right-hand man, travels the opposite direction, evolving from jaded opportunist to weathered realist (and right out of politics). Through one man's grand destruction and another's solitary rebirth, Warren starkly juxtaposes ambition and motivation with responsibility and consequence. As Burden comes to terms with his role in the greater picture, all are reminded of the parts they play and the masters they serve.

Lead a Rich Life

The Rise of Silas Lapham | By William Dean Howells

1885

In America's first major novel to focus on a businessman, the understanding of value — and the many ways it can be defined — is still strong after 120 years. The story chronicles the arrival on the Boston scene of the title character, a self-made, small-town millionaire without a clue. As he and his family try to make nice with the blue bloods, Lapham begins a personal reawakening that takes him through roiling fortunes, shady dealings, and some good old-fashioned stock and real estate disasters. Climbers take note: Not every rise must be financial.

The Perils of Fast

What Makes Sammy Run? | By Budd Schulberg

1941

"Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with the brakes on." So speaks Sammy Glick. Everyone knows Sammy, and if he doesn't sound familiar, chances are you are him. Schulberg's unscrupulous antihero is timelessly relevant because he's built — a la Frankenstein — from universally loathed characteristics. The book follows Glick's cold, calculating, repulsive, and hilarious ascent through newspapers and film. Glick isn't intended as a role model but rather as a foil. He contrasts the noble with the ignoble, the genuine with the deceitful. Nevertheless, his ambition and success could tempt as a how-to. For most, it's a handbook for dealing with the Glick in the office down the hall.

Future Shock

Underworld | By Don DeLillo

1997

A decoder ring for a modern American society of baseball, bombs, and Sinatra, Underworld identifies and translates the influences that have shaped our political, business, and even social habits. DeLillo projects his vision of tomorrow's brutal capitalism. "Capital burns off the nuance in a culture," he writes. "Not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices." Business is ominously realigning our culture. What bad habits are you helping to shape? Better yet, what good ones?


What other books would you recommend? Offer your suggestions, and we'll feature some of the best — the most novel — ideas online.

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