Summer Reading With a Twist

A second look at some smart books that coulda—and shoulda—been best-sellers.

It has been a heady time for "it guy" authors Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki, and Thomas L. Friedman. They've broken through, pumping up both the business best-seller list and their profiles. But their success is probably due more to the fact that none are strictly "business" authors: They've resonated in the corporate world because they offer a set of new lenses to peer through. With only a handful of these books on the shelves, though, what to read while waiting for a new biz blockbuster? We went back to the shelves to find four sleepers that could have been the next Blink but never reached their tipping point.

Emergence [ Scribner, 2001 ] By Steven Johnson

Slime molds, stock markets, city sidewalks—even the most chaotic systems take on a degree of order if you step back far enough. Steven Johnson's Emergence is about understanding complex organizations by deconstructing them into their simplest components.

The twist here is that Johnson, author of last year's Everything Bad Is Good for You, doesn't focus on systems with top-down hierarchies. He's into organizations that evolve from the bottom up, anything from neighborhoods to Napster.

Or anthills, which have fascinated and baffled scientists for years. Despite her name, the queen isn't actually in charge; no one is. So how do individual ants know whether they should be gathering food or taking out the trash? Johnson calls it "swarm logic," which he defines as assessing a global system by way of local information. By receiving chemical signals that show who's doing what at any given time, ants know when to reassign themselves to other work.

What Emergence boils down to is a quest to understand why the whole is sometimes smarter than the sum of its parts. It's a provocative journey, one in which software learns how to "procreate" and questions such as "Are we [genetically] more like a socialist housing complex than an ant colony?" don't sound out of place. Johnson brings logic and reason to his research, and his vivid examples ensure that the theory of emergence will color readers' thinking long after they've finished the book.

•Gladwellian prose: 3
•Surowieckian reason: 3
•Friedmanian foresight : 4

Candyfreak [ Algonquin, 2004 ] By Steve Almond

Roughly 100 years ago, there were 6,000 candy companies in the United States. Today, there are about 150, most fighting for scraps left behind by three conglomerates: Hershey's, Mars, and Nestlé. According to author Steve Almond, a self-described (and aptly named) "candyfreak," the big three want "hegemony over the average American mouth." Almond sets out to discover what happened to the era when each town had its own brands and its denizens enjoyed "a surge of sucrose-fueled civic identity." What he finds is something we've seen before: more mergers, less choice. Over the past 50 years, small-time candy makers have been gobbled up or forced out of business by mass-market realities.

This isn't to say that Almond is bitter. When he isn't eating samples from the factories he tours—he says he has had candy every day of his life—his tongue is lodged firmly in his cheek, cracking jokes and leaving a piñata's worth of sugary factoids behind him, such as the fact that more than 100,000 different types of candy bars have been introduced since the first one with multiple ingredients, created in 1912. While Candyfreak eulogizes the confectioners of old, the book really hits Payday by celebrating the regional underdogs that survive today.

Almond introduces us to "candy speculator" Steve Traino, a former Xerox employee who is capitalizing on America's nostalgia for long-lost candy with CandyDirect.com, a site that carries hundreds of hard-to-find treats. Then there's Marty Palmer, the Sioux City, Iowa, man behind the Twin Bing, the biggest-selling handmade candy bar left in America. "Frankly, if you're Mars or Hershey's, you don't even want to bother with a $10 million line," says Palmer. "Well, I can make a fat lunch on that." The business lessons in Candyfreak make for a nice dessert.

•Gladwellian prose: 5
•Surowieckian reason: 3
•Friedmanian foresight: 2

The Ingenuity Gap [ Knopf, 2000 ] By Thomas Homer-Dixon

Most of us take it for granted that we'll be able to cope even as the world fills up with more people consuming more goods at a faster pace. In what University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon dubs "technohubrism," Westerners consistently believe that our can-do ingenuity and technological advancements will get us to a solution. But that may no longer be the case. Using examples of everything from car engines to tax forms, Homer-Dixon demonstrates that society today faces "more complex, urgent, and unpredictable circumstances" than in the past, forcing us to "make more sophisticated decisions in less time." The disturbing message: "The complexity and speed of operation of today's vital economic, social, and ecological systems exceed the human brain's grasp."

In his 400 pages, Homer-Dixon is omnivorous in his approach to research, visiting experts in psychology, economics, biology, and ecology, and looking at urban planning, global warming, and the spread of disease as examples in which we are falling behind the pace of change. Yet he is not entirely pessimistic, acknowledging the ability of the human mind to react to a crisis, as pilots did from the cockpit of United flight 232 in 1989 when they figured out a way to land the crippled jet. A chat with Donald Stuss, one of the world's authorities on the frontal lobe, explains how the brain processes change and develops solutions. There is hope for us, Homer-Dixon cautions, but "the hour is late."

To get out of this trap, we must abandon our naive belief that technology always comes to the rescue. Homer-Dixon may be a Cassandra, but today's harried business readers will find much in this far-reaching tome to give them pause. That is, if they can find the time to open the book at all.

•Gladwellian prose: 4
•Surowieckian reason: 4
•Friedmanian foresight: 5

Nation of Rebels [ HarperBusiness, 2005 ] By Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter

Beware, rebel, even if you do have a cause: Philosophy professors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter are on to you. In a sweeping critique of the history of the counterculture movement, the authors assert that the ideas we call rebellious, "be they artistic, political, or cultural," are not only impotent against the mainstream society they villainize, they're so efficiently co-opted that they often have the opposite of their intended effect.

That makes Nation of Rebels something of a polemic, a rebellion against our idea of rebellion. The authors excoriate our entire rebel canon, systematically dismantling the myopia and hypocrisy they ascribe to everything from Marxism and feminism to Fight Club and the Sex Pistols. First, they say, a full-scale rebellion could never really work. If everyone actually dropped acid and listened to Hendrix, we'd have no society, no doctors or politicians or cooks (or is it that the medicine, speeches, and food might be more creative?) "We must distinguish," the authors say, "between dissent and deviance." And most "alternative" thinking so quickly becomes a part of the mainstream consumer culture that it loses whatever effect it was supposed to have. As the Sex Pistols climbed the charts, they note, safety pins began to command premium prices. As for hippies, they quickly became "less of a threat to the established order than a marketing opportunity."

The authors do seem more comfortable criticizing existing forms of rebellion than with offering a model that could actually work. But for readers inquisitive enough to wade through the book's skepticism, the reward is a deep and rich history of the counterculture movement in America.

•Gladwellian prose: 4
•Surowieckian reason: 3
•Friedmanian foresight: 3

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