Blogs & Comment

What was the best business book of 2013?

It’s clear which was the most influential


We’re still weeks away from Christmas, but “best of” season—the annual compiling of cultural lists and rankings—is already well under way. Last weekend, the Globe and Mail put out its list of the best books of the year. Today, the New York Times published its “100 Notable books of 2013” online. Both lists featured a handful of works you could call, broadly, business books.

From the New York Times:

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. By George Packer.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. By Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell.
The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund. By Anita Raghava
After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead. By Alan S. Blinder.

From the Globe and Mail:

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. By Malcolm Gladwell
Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. By Clive Thompson
The Unwinding. By George Packer
Lean In. By Sheryl Sandberg

The Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award was also handed out last week. It went to The Everything Store, by Brad Stone and was selected from a short list that included:

The Alchemists: Inside the Secret World of Central Bankers. By Neil Irwin
Big Data: A Revolution that will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. By Viktor Mayer- Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. By Brad Stone
Lean In. By Sheryl Sandberg
Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy. By Iain Martin
The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund. By Anita Raghava

I don’t know if it was the best book of the year (I didn’t read it). But I think it’s clear Lean In was the most influential business book of 2013. (In October, we called 2013 “the year of Lean In” in our women in the workplace package.) The Unwinding, which also made multiple lists, was definitely one of the best books of any kind I read this year. (I wrote about it tangentially here in June.) But it was less a pure business book than a broad piece of social history. I also haven’t read, and we didn’t write about, The Billionaire’s Apprentice, which made both the NY Times and FT lists. (You can read the original Times review here.) My own personal favourites from 2013 included Difficult Men, by Brett Martin and The Idealist, by Nina Munk.

Overall, two broad themes dominated the business book world in 2013. One: books about how the financial crash happened and why (Making it Happen, The Alchemists, The Unwinding, The Billionaire’s Apprentice, After the Music Stopped) and two: books about the business and culture of technology (The Everything Store, Smarter Than You Think, as well as Hatching Twitter, by Nick Bilton and Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution, by Fred Vogelstein.) Nick Heller wrote a great piece in the New Yorker recently about the late-year flurry of the latter. His conclusion wasn’t far off from the one I reached when I wrote about Dave Eggers’ new tech dystopia novel The Circle, namely that there’s less and less separating the so-called new business of tech from the old business of, well, business.

“Jobs is often described as an innovator,” Heller wrote.

But, to judge from Vogelstein’s adept and well-reported account of the iPhone’s unveiling and the corporate battles it launched, his real hallmark was a flair for despotism and deception. These are not new skills in business, or transformative ones. If anything—as a recent crop of books about Apple, Google, Amazon and Twitter makes plain—they mark the sly triumph of old-style corporate manners in a bright new skin.

One clear loser, I think, was Malcolm Gladwell. David and Goliath sold well. (It’s been on the Times‘ best seller list for seven weeks.) But critically, his reputation has suffered. Gladwell used to be seen, in some quarters at least, as an important thinker and borderline oracle. But in reality, he’s always been more huckster than sage, something more and more people seem to be accepting. He has always been a gifted writer and salesman, but as Tom Junod wrote recently, “Gladwell has been treading the line between the obvious and the preposterous for years.”

UPDATE: As I was about to post this, I came across the Washington Post’s best-of list which includes business titles Lean In, The Everything Store, The Alchemists and The Billionaire’s Apprentice.