This year has been a big one for business news. But if you have some time during this holiday week to step back from the information onslaught, there are a handful of truly eye-opening business books that are worth your attention. As I do every year, I pored over dozens of books to identify several gems.
Perhaps the most illuminating business book of the year, for me, is Amy Goldstein’s “Janesville: An American Story.” If you really want to understand what’s going on in today’s real economy — beyond the headlines about new stock-market highs, tax policy or the latest list of billionaires — spend some time with this true tale of what happened in the middle-class town of Janesville, Wis., after General Motors closed a factory there.
Ms. Goldstein admirably shows all sides of this story, capturing in microcosm all of the issues that so many communities across the United States are facing. You will probably be left doing some hard thinking about what is driving the politics of the moment, although Mr. Goldstein brilliantly, and respectfully, paints the book’s characters with such nuance that readers from across the ideological spectrum are likely to arrive at different conclusions about heroes and villains.
In crafting this deeply reported and riveting read, Ms. Goldstein spent considerable time in Janesville. As a result, you get a palpable sense of what life is like there; of the financial and psychological impact that a major plant closing has; and of the knock-on effects such an event has on other businesses and institutions. She paints vivid portraits of characters who include laid-off workers seeking retraining, union officials and local politicians, Speaker Paul D. Ryan among them. If you liked “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” J. D. Vance’s best-seller about growing up in Ohio and the decline of the industrial Midwest, I think you’ll find that “Janesville” makes these issues real in a new and compelling way.
While we’re on the topic of the declining middle class, Walter Scheidel’s “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century,” is a smartly argued book. As you may be able to tell from the title, Mr. Scheidel makes the case that throughout history, inequality has led only to terrible things (think pandemics and wars). For anybody who has ever debated issues related to inequality and their broader meaning, this book provides more than just a powerful thought experiment.
The next book on my list is not a business book exactly, but it does offer a lot of great lessons about leadership: “Grant” by Ron Chernow. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has it at the top of his own reading list for good reason: In recounting the life of Ulysses S. Grant, Mr. Chernow illuminates a leader who almost wasn’t. A substantial portion of the book examines Grant’s many failures, in business, in politics and in his personal life. It was from those failures that Grant emerged to become a two-term president, and perhaps one of the nation’s most underappreciated leaders.
Another well-told book about leadership, one that intelligently masquerades as a book about sports, is Sam Walker’s “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams.” Mr. Walker spent years identifying the most successful sports teams in history, and then tried to figure out what had made them that way. His answer: “The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.”
With genuine insight, he describes seven characteristics of great captains, whom he refers to as Tier One captains. One trait in particular stuck out to me, especially in this age of selfies: “Most of the Tier One captains had zero interest in the trappings of fame. They didn’t pursue the captaincy for the prestige it conveyed.”
In the business narrative category — those fly-on-the-wall books filled with delicious details about corporate intrigue — the best were “The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Financial Scams in Financial History,” by David Enrich, about the Libor scandal, and “Wild Ride: Inside Uber’s Quest for World Domination,” by Adam Lashinsky, about Uber.
Mr. Enrich, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is now an editor at The New York Times, turned what could have easily been a dry academic story into a page-turning, John Grisham-like thriller. Mr. Lashinsky’s book gives readers an inside view of the ride-hailing giant’s creation and what created the broken corporate culture that yielded so many negative news stories this year.
“Wild Ride” offers a searing portrait of Uber’s former chief executive, Travis Kalanick, whom Mr. Lashinsky shows to be both a genius and wildly headstrong (and not in a good way). Because of when it was published, the book does not include many of the episodes that consumed Uber in 2017, including Susan Fowler’s viral blog post about the company’s misogynistic culture and the ouster of Mr. Kalanick. But until that book is written — and it surely will be — “Wild Ride” is a good primer.
Given all the rightful attention on sexual harassment in the workplace, it is worth revisiting Ellen Pao’s story as she tells it in “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.” A venture capitalist at the prominent Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Ms. Pao was one of the first to speak out publicly about a culture that is desperately in need of change and went to court to fight it.
Although she lost her case, she may have won something larger, or at least started a larger movement. “I could have received millions from my adversaries if I would just have signed a nondisparagement contract; I turned it down so I could write this book and share my side,” she writes.
If you’re a wonk, two books worth nerding out on are “Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought,” by Andrew W. Lo, and “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future,” by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. Fair warning: These books are not beach reads, but they do make significant contributions to the fields they cover.
Mr. Lo’s book offers a unique way to think about the idea of “efficient markets” — a new hypothesis worth considering about how markets can be rational and irrational at the same time. “Machine, Platform, Crowd” is a forward-looking take on how business will interact with artificial intelligence and what that will mean for the transformation of industries.
Finally, I wrote about it this year, but if you haven’t read “Principles: Life and Work,” by Ray Dalio, do yourself a favor and do so. You’ll learn about Mr. Dalio’s novel approach to management, which involves focusing on your failures. Some of his strategies can be uncomfortable. But more important, if you’re willing to accept some of his unusual advice, you’ll learn things about yourself. It’s a book that forces you to be introspective and makes you want to learn from your own mistakes. I know it did for me.