Four book recommendations: 'There Are No Children Here', '2020 Vision', 'The Prize', and 'Iron John'.
"Lafeyette and his nine-year-old cousin Dede danced across the worn lawn outside their building, singing the lyrics of an L. L. Cool J rap, their small hips and spindly legs moving in rhythm. The boy and girl were on their way to a nearby shopping strip, where Lafeyette planned to buy radio headphones with $8.00 he had received as a birthday gift.
"Suddenly, gunfire erupted. The frightened children fell to the ground. 'Hold your head down,' Lafeyette snapped, as he covered Dede's head with her pink nylon jacket. If he hadn't physically restrained her, she might have sprinted for home, a dangerous action when the gangs started warring. 'Stay down,' he ordered the trembling girl.
"The two lay pressed to the beaten grass for half a minute, until the shooting subsided. Lafeyette held Dede's hand as they crawled cautiously through the dirt toward home. When they finally made it inside, all but fifty cents of Lafeyette's birthday money had trickled from his pockets."
-- From There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz
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Some books really do transform companies, as Leslie Brokaw shows in this month's cover story (see [Article link]), but most business books I see these days aren't about to transform anything. I'm referring to those dreadful "how-to" affairs written by people with little to say and an infinite capacity to say it. Actually, they're not so much written as dictated -- on airline flights, in the backseats of limos. Lately, however, several books have landed on my desk that are worth every businessperson's time and attention. Although they may not tell you how to hire winners or provide total quality service, they will do what every good book should: change some aspect of how you view yourself and the world around you.
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There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz (Doubleday, 1991, $21.95). If you read only one book this year, make it this account of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, two young boys growing up in Henry Horner, a Chicago housing project so poverty-stricken that Mother Theresa assigned nuns from her order to work there after her visit in 1982. Kotlowitz, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, creates a spellbinding portrait of the two boys' struggle to stay in touch with the magic of childhood in the midst of more daily violence than you or I will see in a lifetime. If this book doesn't have a profound effect on how we conduct our debate on domestic economic and social issues, nothing will.
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2020 Vision, by Stan Davis and Bill Davidson (Simon & Schuster, 1991, $19.95). Publishing insiders are touting this book as futuristic and comparing its authors to Toffler and Naisbitt. Nonsense. This is the most cogent analysis I've seen in a long time of where we are right now. Pay particular attention to the fourth chapter, in which the authors argue convincingly that there's altogether too much talk about organization these days. If you want a more entrepreneurial and innovative company, say Davis and Davidson, focus on your business more and your organization less.
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The Prize, by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster, 1991, $27.50). Business books shouldn't run 781 pages. Ever. Nevertheless, this monster, which chronicles the 132-year history of the oil industry, is impeccably researched and fluently written. The first few chapters alone justify the hefty admission price. Indeed, they could be a book in their own right, recreating in vivid detail the early days of the industry, starting with the first successful extraction of "Pennsylvania rock oil," in 1859. You can't read Yergin's account of the improbable cast of characters who built the modern oil business without marveling at the role of luck and accident in any process of economic creation.
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Iron John, by Robert Bly (Addison-Wesley, 1990, $18.95). This book by a poet about the psychology of men is neither great poetry nor great psychology, but it certainly has a provocative thesis. "[The] images of adult manhood given by the popular culture are worn out," writes Bly, and as a result men are open to "new visions of what a man is or could be" as never before. Equally powerful is the impact this book is having on men, freeing us to talk about our emotional lives and how that aspect of our nature affects the organizations we create and manage. The popularity of this book offers ground for hope that the 1990s will be the decade in which the vocabulary of the "corporate battlefield" -- a male invention if ever there was one -- will be replaced by a more appropriate, more humane lexicon.