I have one big problem with Bill Gates' saying that Business Adventures (1969), the uncreatively-titled tome by longtime New Yorker writer John Brooks, is "the best business book I've ever read."
I wish he'd told us two decades ago.
That's not to discredit Gates' selection, which he announced in the Wall Street Journal last week. I've never read Business Adventures, and I've never been the cofounder of Microsoft. So far be it from me to dismiss the merit of Gates' choice.
But I'm frankly skeptical about the timing of this article. Why is Gates--who wrote that he first borrowed the book from Warren Buffett in 1991--only sharing this recommendation now? If you liked the book so much, Bill, if you thought it would help leaders so much, why did you wait 23 years to tell them?
Ruin the Sacred Truths
Before I dive further into scrutinizing the timing of Gates' choice, I first want to credit him for originality.
There are few things more annoying (to a longtime business journalist) than asking supposedly subversive entrepreneurs for book recommendations. Why? Because these oh-so-radical entrepreneurs--just when you're ready to believe they have few conventional opinions--tend to say that their favorite book is something like Built to Last or In Search of Excellence or The Art of War.
Again: Nothing wrong with those choices, per se. They all deserve their place in the pantheon of entrepreneurial bibles. It's just that we've heard it all before. It's like asking a friend for a musical recommendation. And then your friend tells you to just listen to the Beatles or Beethoven. Thanks for the tip, Lester Bangs.
So props to Gates for at least plucking a once-hallowed title from obscurity.
Nonetheless, his arguments for Business Adventures seem thin to me. Here's one of them:
Unlike a lot of today's business writers, Brooks didn't boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success. (How many times have you read that some company is taking off because they give their employees free lunch?) You won't find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters and show how things went for them.
Two problems here: First, many business readers actually prefer listicles and takeaways and bulletpoints and summaries. They're businesspeople. They're busy. And in many cases, reading long-form narratives isn't their strongsuit.
Second, Gates is painting business writers with a broad brush. Even in today's world of clicks and listicles, there are plenty of articles, magazines, and books devoted to in-depth, character-driven explorations of business and entrepreneurship. Two recent examples include Scott Helman's profile of Aereo in the Boston Globe and Clayton Christensen and Derek van Bever's takedown of contemporary capitalism in the Harvard Business Review.
Moreover, Bill, take it from me: There are plenty of editors determined to challenge any writer naive enough to posit that a company succeeded merely because of free lunch.
Smells Like a Marketing Campaign
But my main objection to Gates' choice is the timing of it. As an author myself, I have seen firsthand how the world of book publicity works. I am also--in my job for Inc.--on the receiving end of countless pitches for book publicity.
So while I'd like to view Gates' article in the Wall Street Journal as a wonderful contribution by a venerated entrepreneur, it's hard for me not to view it as the first step in a potential marketing campaign around a reissue of Business Adventures, complete with intros and blurbs by Gates and Buffett.
I could be wrong about that. It's just conjecture. It's just my knee-jerk skepticism in response to this unavoidable question: Why, 23 years after reading it, is Gates only now letting loose with his acclaim?
Moreover, Gates' most specific recommendation for the book is both self-serving and well-known:
Starting in the early '70s, Xerox funded a huge amount of R&D that wasn't directly related to copiers, including research that led to Ethernet networks and the first graphical user interface (the look you know today as Windows or OS X). But because Xerox executives didn't think these ideas fit their core business, they chose not to turn them into marketable products. Others stepped in and went to market with products based on the research that Xerox had done. Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, drew on Xerox's work on graphical user interfaces. I know I'm not alone in seeing this decision as a mistake on Xerox's part. I was certainly determined to avoid it at Microsoft.
This would indeed be instructive to today's business leaders, except they all already know it.
Citing Xerox's R&D of the 70s is like citing Tylenol's reaction to a scandal. You might as well tell us the Beatles and Beethoven were great. You're not wrong, but you're also not breaking any ground. And when you're Bill Bleepin' Gates, I want you to break some bleeping ground.