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Classics for Modern Business

July 15, 2012

Dickens for Distributors?

In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Blair Labatt, CEO of a large food distributor in Texas, talked about his background as a Ph.D. in English and former English faculty member.  He strongly disparaged the idea that the two tracks of his professional life–the academic and the corporate–were unrelated.  According to Labatt,

A manager who grows should always be reading. I try to be the one directing people to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that is known and thought,” sometimes in unexpected places. For example, I think that the best way of understanding the overpopulation, the pollution, and the class warfare of Mexico City today is probably to read Bleak House.

This statement made me think of a piece I read several years ago by Stanley Bing (that’s not his real name–he is an executive for a Fortune 500 company who writes humor under the Bing pseudonym for Fortune and other publications).  He wrote, tongue in cheek as usual, some similar advice to new graduates:

Read a book now and then, stupid.  […] Read some fiction, why don’t you?  Dickens is good.

He goes on to suggest Dostoyevsky also.  But it struck me as interesting, especially in light of my previous post, that both of these authors mentioned Dickens.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, given not only the huge volume of work that Dickens produced but also his fascination with businessmen, the power of money to do both good and bad in the world, and, yes, lawyers.

Beyond his own work, though, this synchronicity of Dickens references leads me to wonder what other classic works of literature can best inform the modern, and busy, business world.  What do these works still have to offer us?  If a friend were to ask for a single recommendation, what would we point them to?

Three Must-Reads

In true English-major fashion, I find that I can’t follow my own injunction to choose just one work to recommend, but I will limit myself to three.

The Way We Live Now: Trollope’s greatest achievement, and a highly readable work that will compel you through its nearly 1000 pages, The Way We Live Now is absolutely the best explanation of the 2007-2008 financial meltdown that I have yet read.  That may seem odd, given that it’s more than 100 years old, but this work offers an eerily familiar description of the intimate lives and public shenanigans of a group of high-powered, politically influential people who allow their ambitions to overcome their scruples.  A tense story of near-success and monumental failure, this classic survives because of its continuing timeliness.

Middlemarch:  Yes, this is my favorite novel, but I recommend it not only because I happen to love it but because it offers some of the greatest extended psychological profiles of any work ever written.  Each individual in the provincial town of Middlemarch is delved into in great detail, from the ambitious and brilliant scientist-doctor, to the ne’er-do-well who wants to change his ways, to the giddy young wife, to the introspective young woman who inspires through her dedication and intelligence–and on and on, through dozens of central characters.  It would be a highly unusual person who could read this masterwork and not find him or herself in it, along with both the nuisances and the inspirations of his/her acquaintance.

Of Human Bondage: Sommerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical work takes the reader through a dozen universes: the British public school, the expatriot art world in Paris, medical school, diners and cheap night clubs, department stores and art departments, and finally the private practice of a doctor in the English countryside.  The always-coexisting glories and sufferings of the human beings in each of these worlds is explored in depth, along with the often painful but finally redemptive sufferings of the unlikely hero.  If you ever need to remember that our working lives are the results of chance, failure, and serendipity as well as hard work and personal devotion, this work will remind you.  And it will remind you, also, of the nobility there is in work, whatever its circumstances.

Some of the leading minds in management remind us that fiction–especially the classic works–can offer us insight into the work we do and its place and function in the larger world.  What other works do you recommend?

  1. Also Doctor Zhivago! It gets left out of the canon of Russian Literature, but it is my favorite!

  2. Yes–that’s a great choice. I was going to include Anna Karenina, but I already had three I wanted to talk about.

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