Thought-provoking Tomes Tops Faculty FavoritesPublished: July 18, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory
Ambitious summer reading plans may have about the same life span as New Year’s resolutions, but that may have to do with the choice of books. To give our plans a better chance this year, Knowledge@Emory asked some serious readers—professors at Emory University and its Goizueta Business School—about their recent favorites.
Faculty volunteered a long and eclectic mix of titles this year, from a look at why so many well-meaning international aid programs go wrong to a primate expert’s theories about why human beings turn out the way they do. If there was a predominant preference among faculty it was for books that ask hard questions about the world around us, and try to get to the truth.
One book that succeeds in accomplishing just that, according to Jeffrey Rosensweig, is James Kynge’s recent book, China Shakes the World: A Titan's Rise and Troubled Future -- and the Challenge for America (Houghton Mifflin 2006). The associate professor of finance and director of the global perspectives program found it refreshingly different from many other books about China. “I like it because it is not one of the proliferating ‘breathless’ books about China, which only extrapolate positive growth stories. This book shows the amazing growth and increasing influence, but also the problems and pitfalls China will face,” Rosensweig says.
Sudipta Basu, an associate professor of accounting, also recommends a book that casts a similarly cold eye on the World Bank. In The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, (Penguin 2006), William Easterly argues that the World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have actually done very little to help the poor, according to Basu.
“Put bluntly, the multinational aid institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have over the last 50 years done more harm than good in the developing world, and Easterly, a former World Bank researcher, documents in devastating detail all the things that have gone wrong,” says Basu.
Easterly’s thesis is that “[while] a big part of the problem is the corruption that other people's money engenders in both recipient governments and aid officials, the little that trickles through is spent poorly on trophy projects that do little for the poor they were supposed to help,” Basu adds.
Finally, Easterly offers some positive suggestions about how better to help the 8/10ths of the world that is still struggling economically. If international aid is to be more than just free advertising for rock musician Bono and his pals, Basu notes that Easterly recommends focusing on accountability and small-scale projects rather than the white elephants that the multinational institutions have spread all over the Third World.
Books about mismanagement on a smaller scale were popular, too. In Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG (Wiley 2006), authors Ron Shlep and Al Ehrbar take on the rise and fall of CEO Hank Greenberg, the builder of insurance giant AIG who was deposed following allegations of wrongdoing by Elliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general. The book offers “many lessons on limits and lines crossed,” says Benn Konsynski, a chaired professor of decision and information analysis at Goizueta.
Another cautionary tale of management gone wrong is recommended by Robert Kazanjian, a professor of organization and management. Kazanjian liked The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers, by Phil Rosenzweig (Free Press 2007). Publishers Weekly called it “a tart takedown of fashionable management theories.” Kazanjian agrees, saying the book is “very effective at addressing the factors that influence firm-level performance (and the myths that surround it).”
Another recently published book that some at Emory say was more successful at cracking the code of successful strategic management was The Road to Organic Growth, (McGraw Hill 2006). Author Ed Hess, adjunct professor of organization and management as well as founder and executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Growth, analyzed 22 high-organic growth companies from Wal-Mart to Tiffany’s and discovered that they all shared some common traits. Hess takes these commonalities and constructs a road map on how to build strong, sustainable companies.
Not all good management is confined to the private sector, of course, nor are all the good management books. Gregory Waymire, a chaired professor of accounting, liked 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton 2006), a memoir of the career of a former Emory president, Bill Chace, along with observations about the place of the university in society. “The book is a provocative read, and whether or not you agree with him 100%, you'll see this as a thoughtful book by a man who has seriously considered the broader importance of the university for the course of humanity,” Waymire says.
Several professors recommended a book that was on last year’s list as well – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb (Random House, 2007). Taleb argues that we tend to look for patterns, neglecting the possibility of an unpredictable event – a stock market crash, or a terrorist attack. Instead of variations of what came before, something totally unexpected may be more likely. “History does not crawl, it jumps,” he says.
Remarking on the impact of the book, Goizueta'a Metters, notes, “the ideas in this book may be highly relevant for research in business.”
For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, the unpredictable can generate new ideas and create new realities. Andrea Hershatter, associate dean and director of the BBA program and a senior lecturer in organization and management at Goizueta, recommends The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization (Currency 2005), by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman. “I loved it because it is full of great inspiring stories about innovations and the intrapreneurial spirit in corporations. The 10 faces thing works as a framework, but it is a little too clean for me. Mostly, I like the vignettes and the concept that it takes a corporate village to raise a great idea!” she writes.
A similar spirit seems to prevail in Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, a book by restaurateur Danny Meyer recommended by Hess. Meyer, who started the Union Square Café at age 27 and now owns more than 11 highly acclaimed restaurants in New York, tells the story of his rise to the top of New York’s restaurant scene, which he credits to an idea that sets the conventional wisdom of business on its head: he credits his success with a theory that the employee comes first, then the customer, then the investor.
For a closer look at the role entrepreneurs such as Meyer play in the economy, Hess also recommends Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction by Thomas K. McCraw (Belknap Press 2007). The book is a new biography of the economist who saw entrepreneurs as the driving force behind economic growth.
Two other books, both recommended by Richard Metters, associate professor of decision and information analysis at Goizueta, suggest that entrepreneurs may accomplish even more than Schumpeter believed. Metters suggests a book by Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface Corp and a recent recipient of an honorary doctorate at Emory. In Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise: The Interface Model (Peregrinzilla Press 1999), Metters says, Anderson tells the story of how he succeeded in “transforming his company from a spoiler of the environment to ultra-green.”
“Ray is probably the preeminent industrial environmentalist in the world. He has dedicated his firm to achieving a zero environmental footprint,” notes Metters. “Changing his firm has changed his industry. All carpet manufacturers [are]—
or pretend to be—green these days.”
Metters also recommends the environmentally-focused classic, The Ecology of Commerce (Collins 1994), by Paul Hawken, co-founder of the Smith & Hawken gardening supplies company. Besides Metters, the book has other fans too: it was the book that inspired Anderson to change his company. “It was an epiphany...Hawken's message was a spear in my chest that remains to this day,” Anderson has written.
If all that can-do spirit raises the energy level too high for a hot summer day, a little dose of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies by Bryan Caplan (Princeton 2007), may make the beach blanket more comfortable again.
Emory professor of economics and law Paul Rubin likes Caplan’s take on why voters often make bad economic choices. “Students of economics, including economics professors, often wonder why it is that self evidently beneficial economic policies are not immediately adopted. Caplan provides a provocative and useful set of answers. Since any individual voter has little if any influence on the outcome of an election, it does not pay for individuals to become fully informed about policy. People have substantially biased views about the function of the economy, and no reason to become better informed,” Rubin says. “Caplan shows how these factors interact to lead to systematically bad economic policies. A very interesting book for anyone interested in economic policy.”
Two new histories of what some scholars see as just such a period when economic populism trumped pragmatism are recommended by Goizueta’s Basu: The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins 2007), by Amity Shlaes, a journalist for the Financial Times and Randall E. Parker’s book, The Economics of the Great Depression: A Twenty-First Century Look Back At The Economics Of The Interwar Era (Edward Elgar 2007).
“Journalist Shlaes goes back to primary sources from the period such as
newspapers to see how ordinary individuals reacted to the Great Depression and New Deal policies as they lived through them. In contrast to this bottom-up perspective, Randall Parker interviews the current generation of professional economists who research the Great Depression to find out the state of current knowledge about the causes and consequences of this important event. Both books conclude that many New Deal policies were ineffective or worse, reflecting the economic ignorance of FDR's Brain Trust as well as FDR's populist preferences,” Basu writes.
Yet people do sometimes get things right. On that score, Hess recommends A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium by Robert Friedel (MIT Press). Friedel, a historian at the University of Maryland, asks why technology began steadily developing in the West in the last millennium and concludes that the deepest reason was because people began believing that they actually could make improvements.
But perhaps the deepest clues of all among this years’ book recommendations about why people act the way they we do may be found in two books by primate researcher Frans De Waal, Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, and Primates and Philosophers: how morality evolved (both Riverhead Trade 2006). Basu says these two books by one of the world’s most distinguished primatologists, De Waal, who is a chaired professor of primate behavior at Emory, shows that we owe a lot to our furry forbears.
“Recent field research has found that many primates have developed nascent culture, and de Waal shows that primates display many of the emotions and behaviors that we have historically regarded as uniquely human. Reading de Waal makes clear that the great apes are our closest animal relatives not just genetically but emotionally, and shows that our morals may come as much from nature as our religious teachers,” Basu says.
For some beach-certified reading, Deborah Valentine, a senior lecturer in management communication and a specialist in cross-cultural communication, has one recommendation she tested herself on a recent Mediterranean cruise. “While traveling I read Anderson Cooper's Dispatches from the Edge (Harper, 2007), and found his memoir compelling. The son of Gloria Vanderbilt, he could have enjoyed the easy life, but instead he covers some of the most incredible tragedies for CNN. A must-read for all news junkies,” she writes.
Valentine is also thinking about the news-makers as well, and has read several of the presidential candidates’ memoirs. “Another must-read is Barack Obama's Dreams of My Father. (Crown 2007) “Written when he was only in his 30s, Dreams is an unflinching character study that explores the meaning of `family,’” she says.
She also recommends Four Trials by John Edwards and John Auchard. “I'm impressed by Edward's desire to help the underdog and by his recovery after the tragic loss of his teenage son,” Valentine says.