Having spent more than half of my life in business, engaged in founding or leading a number of small companies, it’s only natural that I should read a good deal about economic history and the history of business. Here, I’ve listed 29 of the best books about the history of business that I’ve read and reviewed in this decade. They’re all nonfiction. I’ve divided them somewhat arbitrarily into four categories: company histories, innovation, finance, and business & society. If you have even a passing interest in the broad subject of business, you’re sure to find at least few books here that will prove rewarding.
Each title is linked to the full review I’ve posted here over the years. I’ve listed titles in no particular order within each category. In each category I’ve identified my favorite, but don’t be misled: every one of the books listed here was compelling.
Of the 10 books listed below, the one that impressed me the most was Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, a biography of Roger Ailes, the uncompromising Republican activist who founded and ran Fox News for 20 years.
Here is the inside story of one of America’s most iconic companies: Ben & Jerry’s. As Brad Edmondson reveals, the model for socially responsible business wasn’t always on track to place the welfare of its employees, its customers, and the community above the interests of shareholders. There were bumps along the way.
The astounding-but-true tale of how a penniless Eastern European immigrant founded the United Fruit Company, helped engineer the murder of the President of Guatemala, and became one of the richest men in the world. It was Samuel Zemurray whose efforts shaped the history several of what came to be called “banana republics.”
If any one person was most responsible for today’s divisive politics in America — and for the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — it’s Roger Ailes. As the longtime chairman of Fox News, Ailes steadily made Right-Wing extremism ever more respectable. We’re all paying the price for that now and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
Many acute observers of today’s world believe that multinational corporations exert more influence on the course of human affairs than do nation states. Steve Coll’s portrait of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest private companies, makes the point vividly.
US involvement in the Middle East is often attributed to the efforts of the country’s largest oil companies. Sally Denton makes the case that Bechtel, the world’s largest construction company, played an equally pivotal role.
Originally written as a doctoral thesis in history, this inquiry into the business practices of Coca-Cola paints a decidedly negative picture of the company that possesses “the most-recognized brand in human history.” In the author’s view, the company pioneered what has emerged as the most profitable approach to business in today’s world: a lean mass-marketing machine that outsources both production and distribution of virtually all its products. “Ultimately,” he writes, “Coke’s genius, its secret formula in many ways, was staying out of the business of making stuff.” That’s Coca-Cola Capitalism.
If Republicans in Congress have their way, the United States Postal Service will become a private company, forced to compete with UPS and Federal Express on an equal footing. Devin Leonard’s history of the postal service from colonial times to the present day makes clear that the distinction between public and private is not clear.
David McCullough’s intimate biography of Apple‘s Steve Jobs grabbed the headlines, and it was beautifully done, as is all of McCullough’s work. But this later entry from two journalists who followed Jobs closely for many years gives a far more accurate and balanced picture of the man and his life. He was even more complex than we knew.
The history of Apple—for a time the world’s largest privately owned company—is fundamentally the story of Steve Jobs. Since he cofounded the company in 197X, Jobs has dominated its evolution whether in or out of the CEO’s job. His obsessive attention to design and detail gave the world several of the iconic products of the early 21st century.
The business journalist Brad Stone explores the world of amazon.com and finds it sorely lacking in humanity. Founder Jeff Bezos, as Stone explains, exploits his employees and brutalizes his suppliers. The picture that emerges is of a thoroughly despicable man motivated by greed and guided by a libertarian view of the world. Ayn Rand would have loved this guy.
Annie Jacobsen’s The Pentagon’s Brain left the strongest impression of the five books listed in this category.
Few of us know any more about the Wright Brothers than the image lingering in our minds of that flimsy biplane lifting off the dunes at Kitty Hawk. Here, the prize-winning biographer David McCullough tells their remarkable story. What’s especially interesting are the years after Kitty Hawk, when the brothers became world famous.
The move to solar energy is inevitable. Sooner or later, the economic advantages of solar will be so compelling that the relatively few people today who still believe the coal and oil industries’ propaganda will eventually be forced to decide to install photovoltaic panels on their rooftops and commercial buildings. That’s the message that emerges from reading between the lines of Rooftop Revolution, the paean to solar energy by Danny Kennedy, one of the avatars of the rising solar industry.
Read this book, and you’ll understand why Google’s stock price stays in the stratosphere, why media executives from newspapers to films to television are terrified by the company—and why the Chinese government feels it necessary to rein it in. You’ll also understand how virtually all the company’s profits come from online advertising despite the proliferation of other products the company has introduced over the years.
In The Idea Factory, journalist Jon Gertner examines one period and one place where the evidence of American know-how was most pronounced: the time from the end of World War II to the late 1970s in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where AT&T’s Bell Laboratories was headquartered. There, an extraordinary assemblage of brilliant scientists and engineers, guided by a succession of equally brilliant managers, invented or developed into practical form the fundamental advances in science and technology that have shaped the world we live in today
DARPA—the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency—was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower over the strenuous objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and just about everyone else in the military establishment. “Its mission is to create revolutions in military science and to maintain technological dominance over the rest of the world.” No doubt there are many in the military and in conservative circles who are thrilled at how successful the agency has been in fulfilling its mission, their original unhappiness notwithstanding. The rest of us should be scared.
Of the six books included in this category, I found Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera’s All the Devils are Here to be the most significant.
A macroeconomist and bond investor with a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford University asserts that misunderstanding of what money is and isn’t has had doleful consequences, including the Great Recession sparked in 2008. “Money is not really a thing at all but a social technology,” he writes. It’s simply a form of credit, an IOU. Coins and currency are simply representations of money; so are bonds, letters of credit, commercial paper, and other financial instruments that facilitate trade today. Before 1973, when Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard, money was given value by precious metals, either silver or gold. This led to what the author sees as confusion, giving kings, bankers, and the practitioners of that dismal new social science, economics, reason to believe that money possessed some objective reality quite irrespective of the parties to any financial exchange.
Journalist David Dayen exposes the criminal conduct that ran rampant during the fallout from what is so delicately referred to as the “housing bubble.” With a focus a handful of activists, most of them based in the state of Florida, Dayen uncovers the truth about the role of law enforcement officials and the Wall Street banks in forcing an estimated six million people out of their homes. It’s a grim and deeply unsettling story.
In Flash Boys, the bestselling business journalist Michael Lewis tells the tale of the arcane and long-secret phenomenon known as high-frequency trading (HFT). The book reads like a thriller, showcasing the author’s legendary writing talent. Like the best fiction, it’s centered on people, not abstract processes or institutions, and the prose sings.
In 1999, Time Magazine called three men—Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin—the Committee to Save the World. TIME, and no doubt the three men themselves, seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, many of which we know today as catastrophic. Now, nearly two decades later, they don’t look so smart anymore.
A handful of marginal players in the financial industry populate the pages of Michael Lewis’ masterful study of the decline and fall of Wall Street. Lewis’ story largely ignores their much better-known counterparts who played such leading roles in making the mess that has been troubling us all ever since. These little-known speculators and investors actually managed to make a bundle from the Great Recession. Lewis explains how.
A Vanity Fair writer offers an intimate, inside look at the people of Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street investment bank whose record-setting bankruptcy is widely credited with triggering the meltdown of 2008. Like the close-up portraits of the rich and famous that often appear in the pages of her magazine, this book is nothing more, and nothing less, than a character study of homo sapiens wallstreetianus. It’s brilliantly done.
Hell’s Cartel by Diarmiud Jeffreys is the most compelling of the eight books listed below.
Most observers of the emergence of what has come to be called “conservatism” in America locate its roots in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, historian Kathryn Olmsted argues that the origins of the movement lie instead in the blood-stained labor conflicts in California’s Central Valley and Imperial Valley in the years before World War II. Ostensibly, the growers were fighting Communism, which was far from always the case.
In Tangled Vines, journalist Frances Dinkelspiel tells the colorful story of California’s wine industry, enriching our understanding of the state’s history — and she makes it read like a thriller. The focal point of Dinkelspiel’s tale is the tragic 2005 fire that destroyed as much as $250 million worth of wine stored at the cavernous Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo. A 300-pound, self-styled wine expert named Mark Anderson set the fire in an attempt to cover up his theft over many years of millions of dollars worth of wine entrusted to his care.
Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945. Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.
Hell’s Cartel, Diarmuid Jeffreys’ compelling story of the role of Germany’s largest industrial concern in the rise of the Nazis and the conduct of World War II. IG Farben was more than the world’s fourth largest business—it was, in fact, a cartel, or association of separate huge firms for much of its existence—and, more than any other company, it personified German science and Germany’s rise while it dominated much of the German economy between the two World Wars. Jeffrey’s focuses on the war crimes trials that brought 24 of IG Farben’s directors to justice.
In 1991 Yergin published The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, which gained the #1 spot on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, won the Pulitzer Prize, and established his firm, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, as the country’s most sought-after voice on energy issues. Two decades later, The Quest broadens and updates the earlier book, relating the monumental changes in energy markets wrought by technological innovation, historic geopolitical shifts, and our changing views of energy and climate.
If you want to understand globalization and its impact on the US economy and on millions of hard-working Americans, Factory Man is a brilliant introduction. The man under Macy’s microscope, John W. Bassett III, was the grandson of the founder of what had been the largest manufacturer of wooden furniture in America for many years. After decades of successful and profitable work opening and running dozens of furniture factories, JBIII (as he’s called familiarly) organized the coalition that successfully persuaded the US government to pursue trade sanctions against dumping by Chinese furniture makers.
Here’s a new take on the history of capitalism, recasting the Industrial Revolution as a natural extension of the European mercantile expansion that preceded it. In Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that the more familiar industrial capitalism that came of age in the nineteenth century was grounded in what he terms “war capitalism” — the relationships forged by the European conquest of the Global South by force — and, in particular, on slavery.
T. J. Stiles won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for this outstanding biography of one of the seminal figures in American economic history. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the model for the generation of capitalists who came to be known as Robber Barons.