It’s recently emerged that America’s two richest men share not only a fondness for bridge, but identical taste in literature. Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet—according to an essay this week from Gates—count John Brooks’ Business Adventures as their single favorite book about business. Why is this compendium of 1960s New Yorker articles catnip for billionaires?
1) The prose is superb. Reading Brooks is a supreme pleasure. His writing turns potentially eye-glazing topics (e.g., price-fixing scandals in the industrial electronics market) into rollicking narratives. He’s also funny. In a piece about the spectacular failure of the Ford Edsel, Brooks describes the doomed car’s elaborate, gilded grille as “the charwoman trying on the duchess’ necklace.” Noting the fact that an Edsel was stolen in North Philadelphia three days after the model’s debut, he writes, “It can reasonably be argued that the crime marked the high-water mark of public acceptance of the Edsel; only a few months later, any but the least fastidious of car thieves might not have bothered.”
Brooks is the direct literary ancestor of Michael Lewis (who has publicly professed his admiration for his forebear). Much like Lewis, Brooks wields a sharp dagger from a detached, chuckling remove—as when he writes that Clarence Saunders, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, had “a gift, of which he may or may not have been aware, for comedy,” or when ne notes that Saunders “in his teens was employed by the local grocer at the pittance that is orthodox for future tycoons taking on their first jobs.” Brooks’ piece about Saunders also employs Lewis’ go-to trope: an eccentric underdog pitted against a hidebound establishment. Clarence Saunders could be Billy Beane, or The Big Short’s one-eyed investor Michael Burry.
You know who else sounds like Brooks? Warren Buffett. Classic homespun Buffett-isms like “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out” and “I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will” would fit right in alongside Brooks’ wry turns of phrase. It comes as no shock that Buffet loves this book, and it would likewise be no surprise if he’d consciously modeled his writing on Brooks’ example.
(As for Bill Gates, the evidence of his impeccable taste in nonfiction is at this very moment glowing before your eyes. Slate was launched at Microsoft under Gates’ watch, and Gates was reportedly “a huge fan and supporter.” Dude appreciates sharp journalism.)
2) The reporting is nuanced. As Gates notes in his essay about Business Adventures, Brooks eschews “listicles” and doesn’t “boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success.” Instead, he tells entertaining stories replete with richly drawn characters, setting them during heightened moments within the world of commerce. Brooks invites the reader to draw her own conclusions about best practices. But after reading a bunch of these pieces, you can’t help but see that businesses don’t rise or plummet based on trendy strategies, or advanced research metrics, or silly employee perks. Their fortunes are determined by small groups of humans—full of flaws and foibles—who come together, make decisions under pressure, and either fail or succeed to create something larger than the sum of their parts.
For example: Conventional wisdom at one time held that the flameout of the Edsel stemmed from Ford’s overreliance on consumer poll testing, which led the company astray. But Brooks reveals that this is far too reductive a conclusion. It’s what we might call a just-so story (or describe—with a nod to a certain current-day business writer who tends toward the reductive—as “Gladwellian”). In fact, there were all sorts of intertwined reasons that the Edsel didn’t sell. The car’s advertising hype grossly overpromised, while its mediocre design underdelivered. The secular trend in 1957 was toward smaller cars, while the Edsel was a throwback to, as Brooks describes it, “fat, tail-finny 1955.” The appearance that fall of the sleek Russian Sputnik satellite convinced Americans that our technology was clunky, inferior, and encrusted with useless gewgaws, and somehow the Edsel became the embodiment of this shame.
But most of all, the Edsel failed because a group of men, sometimes working in concert and sometimes at odds, made a series of decisions that didn’t pan out. As Mitt Romney once put it, in a slightly different context: Corporations are people, my friend. Brooks introduces us, for example, to a pipe-smoking, professorial Ford executive who consults a poetess for potential model names. Her suggestions (including “Utopian Turtletop” and “Mongoose Civique”) are perhaps wisely rejected, but the eventual and uninspiring winner (“Edsel,” after a Ford family patriarch) is declared by fiat when a second executive decides he’s had juuuuust about enough of these creative shenanigans. The pipe smoker subsequently flees to academia, where he obtains a Ph.D. in sociology.
3) The lessons still apply. When Brooks writes about the Edsel, he could easily be reporting on a disastrous consumer product launch that happened last week, with the attendant finger-pointing at marketing mishaps and engineering snafus. When he recounts an inexplicable three-day panic that occurred on Wall Street in 1962, he might as well be talking about the mysterious “Flash Crash” of 2010. When he opines on the flaws of the federal income tax, he could be filing a dispatch from any moment in the last century. (He suggests that the tax is “a serpent in the American Garden of Eden, offering such tempting opportunities for petty evasion that it induces a national fall from grace every April,” and chronicles “the seasonal appearance of special provisions to save people in the upper brackets from the inconvenience of having to pay those rates.”)
Perhaps the eeriest and most edifying piece to read from a modern-day perspective is Brooks’ look inside Xerox during a moment of transition. Here was a firm that experienced massive success at whiplash speeds, rising so far, so fast, that it wasn’t quite sure where to go next. Consider: In the mid-1950s, Americans made about 20 million copies annually, using bad technology that produced worse results. By 1964, after Xerox introduced xerography—a vastly superior, proprietary process that at last let copies be made on regular paper and with great velocity—that figure climbed to 9.5 billion. Two years later, we were making 14 billion copies a year.
Xerography was a technological revolution that some observers at the time put on par with the invention of the wheel. Brooks describes a burgeoning “mania” for copying—“a feeling that nothing can be of importance unless it is copied, or is a copy itself.” Marshall McLuhan fretted that xerography would “bring a reign of terror into the world of publishing,” and warned, “there is no possible protection from technology except by technology.”
In short, the arrival of xerography spurred hopes and fears not unlike those stirred up in the early days of the World Wide Web. It was a piece of tech that we might now call “disruptive.” It turned office culture on its head, changed the nature of text propagation more than anything since the days of Gutenberg, and coined a new dual noun/verb: I’ll Xerox it; let me make a Xerox. As for Xerox the company, it was generating so much profit that it seemed as though its copier drums were spitting out U.S. currency. When Brooks pays a visit to the corporate campus in Rochester, New York, he finds the executives’ biggest concerns revolve around Xerox’s charitable support for the United Nations—a cause the company championed but one that bore little relation to its core business.
At the height of its success, Xerox neglected to foresee its own demise. Then as now, disruption begat adaptation. Copying grew commonplace. Xerox plowed its revenue into R&D in a search for the next hit, but never managed to translate its breakthroughs into best-selling products.
Bill Gates calls the Xerox piece one of Brooks’ “most instructive stories.” It’s easy to see why the former Microsoft CEO might consider this the most poignant of tales among the many poignant tales that populate Business Adventures. In Xerox, we see a corporate behemoth with a single, killer product; a desperate but mostly ineffective effort to find something else that gets traction in the marketplace; and an embarrassment of riches that are nobly redirected toward global betterment.
As reports emerged that Microsoft will lay off up to 18,000 employees, and meanwhile the Gates Foundation continued its quest to craft a better female condom, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was Gates dipping into his dog-eared copy of Business Adventures yet one more time? And if he did, would it be for wisdom or for succor?
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