Smart Books 2008

Five tomes that want to transform your thinking this year. We tell you what’s a must-read and what’s a pass.

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google

Nicholas Carr
January 7


Aspirations Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock for the Web-apps era

Elevator Pitch Computing’s evolution into a commodity utility is a shift akin to the late-19th-century move to the electric power grid, with a similarly profound effect on society and business.

Readability Compulsively readable–for nontechies, too–as it compellingly weaves together news stories, anecdotes, and data. Relies too much on Google, but often in new contexts, such as Sergey and Larry looking forward to when the Internet links straight into the brain.


Big Takeaway “The full power and consequence of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins.”

Pick it or Skip it Pick it–even if you’re a Luddite.


Strategy and the Fat Smoker: Doing What’s Obvious but Not Easy

David Maister
January 2

Aspirations Ram Charan for Dummies

Elevator Pitch Knowing what to do is easy; doing it is hard. (Like being a self-aware fat smoker!)


Readability Folksy, with lots of personal anecdotes (Maister struggled with sleep apnea! Okay. . .). Written for the ADD executive, in quick bites. Ten demerits for the copious references to other biz books and articles, including his own.

Big Takeaway “First, people; then processes; then structure.”

Pick it or Skip it Skip it–unless you haven’t read a management article in the past 15 years.


The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers

Keith R. McFarland
January 15

Aspirations Jim Collins for the junior-varsity corporation


Elevator Pitch A blueprint for companies looking to break out and create lasting growth.

Readability Dense research is leavened by a sprinkling of interviews and site visits that keep things interesting. Anecdote-freshness points for case studies of Polaris and Chico’s. Old-chestnut alert: Intuit’s story gets trotted out.

Big Takeaway “When a leadership team realizes that strategy is really the single most important opportunity for learning within a company, it is free to drop some of the more cumbersome trappings of traditional strategic planning.”


Pick it or Skip it Pick it–unless you’re dying to reread Good to Great.

The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism

Matt Mason
January 8


Aspirations PR touts: “Malcolm Gladwell for the iPod generation.” Spin the jog wheel and try again.

Elevator Pitch How graffiti, pirate radio, and music remixes have influenced mainstream society, and how the current media wars will change the future of business.

Readability Sift through some clunky writing to enjoy wacky and intriguing stories–a history of graffiti art; cameos by 50 Cent and Russell Simmons. Bad move: bringing up game theory.


Big Takeaway “Punk capitalists mix altruism with self-interest to compete on new levels the free market by itself cannot reach.”

Pick it or Skip it Skip it–unless you’re in the entertainment business.


The Riddle: Where Ideas Come From and How to Have Better Ones

Andrew Razeghi
January 28

Aspirations Made to Stick: the prequel

Elevator Pitch Debunks myths of the creative process and provides a system for making “Eureka!” moments as easy as lather, rinse, repeat.


Readability It’s no Caribbean beach read, but you won’t nod off, either. A “history of creativity” speeds from Socrates to Freud to Soichiro Honda. Abbott and Costello and Aaron Spelling share space with Greek philosopher Heraclitus. But the Edsel, again?

Big Takeaway “Although there is no such thing as a new idea, there are such things as new concepts. You can think of concepts as ‘idea systems.’ Although the individual components of the concept may not be new, the combination of ideas–what you cannot see–is where the money is.”

Pick it or Skip it Pick it–especially if you were an English major.


To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios

By Karen Paik
December 1

“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now,” said the unforgettable Edna Mode in The Incredibles. But this authorized history of Pixar’s first two decades is a welcome look back, packed with gorgeous movie stills and rich archival materials. This trip down memory lane has nerdy beginnings–there’s a thorough backgrounder on the development of computer animation starting in the 1970s–and more-accessible chapters about the short films and features, from Toy Story to Cars, that have made Pixar famous. Quotes from founding father John Lasseter and directors such as Brad Bird (who voiced Edna) add insider glimpses that will please hard-core fans. –KBF

Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade

By Rachel Louise Snyder
December 3

Can jeans change the world? If you believe Snyder, a Cambodia-based journalist, perhaps they already have. In Fugitive Denim, she navigates the labyrinthine world of trade with everyone’s favorite casual-Friday attire as her vehicle, telling stories about cotton pickers in Azerbaijan, factory managers in China, fashion designers in New York, and, of course, Bono. The most compelling passages are about two Cambodian garment workers who allow Snyder an intimate look at their lives.

Frank and often funny, Fugitive Denim calculates the cost–environmental, political, human–of our designer duds. But this isn’t a screed against globalization. Rather, it’s a thoughtful, ultimately hopeful look at how our choices about something as mundane as jeans can alter the lives of people 10,000 miles away. –Beth Adams