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.

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6 Comments

  • Anand Sanwal

    Elizabeth - This is one of the best columns I've read in a long long time. Business and the management of business is not a science so despite the well-crafted storytelling of the pundits, most business books are just good stories built on dubious assertions and data.

    And so it was good to see someone point this out so publicly. Your final paragraphs were so spot on I could only smile after reading them. It's about time others point out the dumb'ification of business as promoted in business books.

    I'd recommend The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig for those who appreciate Elizabeth's comments. He does a great job pointing to the flaws of many of these business books and popular management theories.

    Anand Sanwal
    Investile Dysfunction blog

  • Amby nair

    I do not agreed with authors views. There is always some thing to learn from the book(s) we read, weather it adds to your well of intelligence or it just proves to be redundand thats a readers decision to make. Books are like having and one way conversation with author, listening to their point of view. I understand that mosty of "how tos" are just the repetition of mere common sense but those books are needed for folks who doesnt have common sense. There are books like biographies and autobiographies that are very precious.
    There is saying that "the life is small enough and one cant learn lessons by committing all mistakes, instead learn from mistakes of others"... books are great insight to others POV , lessons learned, best practices etc.

  • Sandra Fathi

    Oh, how I loved this article! I find my eyes drawn to business books the way you just can't look away from a horrible accident. Each time a see a new title featured at the book store, I think, this one will have some incredible advice and insight to help me grow my business. Alas, each time I am disappointed anew. Sometimes there are 'grains' of greatness, which are usually summed up in the title, but I often find that these books are one long ego trip down memory lane for the authors. They tend to extol the merits of their greatest successes and bury any failures in the footnotes.

    At my company, I recently asked some of my employees to read the top business books on public relations and marketing and present their findings, and reviews, to the team. Out of 8 books, not a single one got a 5-star rating and none were recommended to co-workers. Yikes!

  • Alli Breton

    I find that most business books, in the end, are just commercialized spins on "common sense". I have that to be the case with a plethora business certification and 'black belt' programs. The unfortunate thing is, common sense is not very common, which is why this is probably a lucrative industry.

    I've learned a lot more from professional social networking (both online and in-person) than from any of the books I've read or courses and certification classes I've taken.

  • Todd Sundsted

    I gave up on business books years ago. I stay up-to-date by reading Harvard Business Review, strategy+business, and FastCompany, and by staying in touch with a network of peers that I can look for for criticism and inspiration.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    Take the book 'Winning' by Jack and Suzy Welch I can easily dump on it but I can just as easily point to Jack's views on work/life balance as pertinent. I gained an insight into a type of organisation, General Electric, that would not suit me. However Jack Welch did shape Jeff Immelt's career and as the current CEO he is doing a great job in a starkly different way to that of his former boss. Business books usually have at least one or two useful insights in them. The good ones for me are perhaps not the good one for you. But to simply slam dunk all business books as being useless strikes me as naive. Sure 'the Donald' (ie Donald Trump)is a showman and he hypes his books but there are little bits here and there that could well be useful to you if you fit his personality profile (of course few of us do!). What is the point of this piece I have just forced myself to finish reading - it is not a valid critique of business books, it is not offering an alternative course of action, and it in no way adds to our understanding of business or how to do things better than we currently do. If you want to make the point that business, especially today in the flat world of internet, is much more about dealing with complexity rather than simplicity or simplistic formulas then I am more than willing to read about your ideas, theories, and practical solutions. But for me this whole article is a very poor effort at doing who knows what. I grade it a FAIL!