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Leadership

Library of the Living Dead

Embrace a business best seller at your brain's peril.

Contrary to what your parents and teachers told you, reading does not necessarily make you smarter. Sometimes it doesn't even require you to think. I would send you a copy of Nicole Richie's novel, The Truth About Diamonds, as demonstrable proof, but there's a clause in my contract prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Instead, I'll point you to the modern era's second-worst literary promulgator of intelligence reduction: your local bookstore's business section.

We're all aware of the genre's clichés. There are the tortured metaphors (usually involving cute animals with simple, vaguely ambulatory problems — mice chasing moving cheese, penguins realizing their iceberg is melting and having nowhere to go) and the slightly less persecuted similes (business is like The Art of War, business is like Winnie the Pooh, business is like having your pinkie finger pulled backward until the pain is intolerable). There is the gratuitous manufacture of new jargon that sounds like English but is in fact spoken only in hotel conference rooms near the airport.

We're nearing the total 12-step-ification of the genre. Eleven of the top 15 business books at press time are how-tos. Jim Cramer's Stay Mad for Life tops the list, a personal-finance primer and brand extension of the CNBC personality's Mad Money show, wherein the ex-hedge-fund manager shouts stock recommendations seemingly under the impression that his expertise is more incisive at higher decibels. The book, which surprisingly is not written in ALL CAPS, doles out instructions in the form of mechanical dos and don'ts. This, of course, makes it exactly like almost every other business best seller.

So many books promise financial riches and personal professional growth, as long as we abide by the rules. "There is a formula," Donald Trump assures the reader in his book, Think Big and Kick Ass (No. 8), "a recipe for success that the top 2% live by and that you can follow to be successful." Naturally, Trump's formula isn't the same as Suze Orman's (No. 7) or John Kotter's (No. 14). So which road leads to success?

The answer is that, sadly, none of them do. When managers buy those books in bulk for their employees, there may be some well-intentioned hope that the books will provide a useful framework for solving problems. But the real utility of 7 Habits and 12 Disciplines and 50 Ways is that they create the illusion of progress simply by adding another layer of busyness.

Business books let us amble zombielike through our careers, freeing us from responsibility for the quality of our own decision making. Better to delegate that responsibility to other people — Jack Welch, perhaps. It's a fresh spin on the old saw that no one ever got fired for buying IBM: No one will ever get canned for leaning on something with a Ken Blanchard blurb on the front cover. The alternative, too frightening to contemplate, is to admit that problems are usually too complex to be reduced to one-size-fits-all solutions, to train ourselves to do our own analysis, and to be a little more skeptical when the shrieking man on TV tells us to buy shares of Google right this very minute. If we can't do that, let's at least reshelve business best sellers where they belong — in the self-help section.

Elizabeth Spiers was the founding editor of both Gawker.com and Dealbreaker.com. Her first novel, And They All Die in the End, will be published by Riverhead.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.