Pierre Bayard's How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read is garnering considerable attention for two reasons. First, the clever thesis. Bayard argues that skimming a book, hearing about if from others, and reading it and then forgetting it are equally valid ways to experience the text as perusing it line by line. (Sorry, English-graduate-student manqué writing here.) Second, commentators consider it an excellent joke to suggest they are talking about How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read without having read it. Most are too careful of their reputations to let the punch line stand.
Now I generally read all the words in a book, often in the order the author wrote them. That's because most books I read fall under the rubric of lit-ra-toor. The reward is in the reading, not in the knowing what was written. And because I'm obsessive-compulsive, I tend to approach business books the same way. What a monumental waste of time. With some exceptions, business books can be skimmed or simply read about - in reviews, articles, etc. - without losing much of the argument or any of the art (where art exists). Many consist of a central idea that a clear and concise writer could lay out in ten or fewer pages. That is interspersed with examples of uneven quality and relevance, the best of which could be culled and significantly edited. Throw in a list of tips or best practices for the action-oriented, and you're good to go.
Certainly there are exceptions. There are rich, insightful--even groundbreaking-business books: books where the originality of thought, the weight of evidence collected and the compelling quality and freshness of the cases studied can change the lives of business leaders and their companies. I'm certainly not suggesting anyone skim the seminal works of Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Jim Collins and their ilk. In addition, there are business books so entertaining and zeitgeisty that people-and not just businesspeople-actually want to read them. (Malcolm Gladwell is the master of this oeuvre. Authors such as Chip Heath, Steven Levitt, and James Suroweicki also fall under this category.) A few business thinkers, such as Charles Handy, are excellent writers. My favorite business book is Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein. An enthralling and meticulously researched history, it offers readers something new on every page.
My criticism of most business books is that they are too repetitive - the authors spend chapter after chapter restating their ideas in slightly different ways or from slightly different perspectives, or else applying those ideas to everything under the sun. ("In Chapter 8 you'll discover how customer-based customization relates to strategy; in Chapter 9 you'll learn about its effects on globalization; and in Chapter 10 you'll see its potential to revolutionize health care.") I assume I'm not alone in this opinion of the genre. Yet publishers continue to produce scads of titles: so people must be reading them. I wonder: are they reading them line-by-line, or in the Bayard-ian sense? If the latter, perhaps business books should be redesigned to facilitate how business people actually consume them, the way so many other goods and services have been designed with an eye to the busy executive's lifestyle.
I don't know whether business book publishers have conducted usability studies to see how customers approach their products. Maybe we can help them out. How do you read business books? Line by line? Or do you skim them? Do you scan the index for relevant or provocative subjects and flip to those pages? Do you look chiefly at the chapter summaries or lists of tips and action points? Do you ask your executive assistant to read them for you and prepare an executive digest? Or do you simply find an interview with the author online and pick up the basics in a few paragraphs? How do you decide what books to read? Which do you consider worth reading line by line?
I'd be interested to know more about the habits of business readers. That is, if any have bothered to read to the bottom of this post.
Last updated: Nov 15, 2007
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan