Today's business world evolved from many sources, some of them surprisingly ancient. While there are business books that are far more popular today, these seven represent breakthrough "pivot points" without which commerce as we know it could not exist:
1. The Science of Wealth (c. 280 BCE)
Summary: Titled "Arthashastra" in Sanskrit, this is the first book written to define economics as a specific element of statecraft.
Why It's Important: Previously, rulers saw economics only in terms of the central accumulation of wealth. This book made management of the larger economy a ruler's specific and ethical obligation.
Fun Factoid: The book also describes when it's appropriate for rulers to use prostitutes as paid assassins.
Best Quote: "One should not inhabit a country where one gets no respect, no opportunity to earn once's livelihood, where one has no friends or relatives, or from where one can not acquire knowledge."
2. The Book of the Abacus (1202)
Summary: Introduced the concept of Arabic numerals to Europe, which until then had used Roman numerals, which lack the concepts of zero and place notation.
Why It's Important: Without Arabic numerals it is impossible to keep accurate financial records or calculate profitability.
Fun Factoid: Rather than describing how to use an abacus, this book explains how to calculate without the use of an abacus.
Best Quote: "The nine Indian figures are 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. With these nine figures, and with the sign 0 (which the Arabs call "zephir"), any number whatsoever can be written."
3. Description of the World (c. 1300)
Author: Marco Polo
Summary: A young man details his journey from Venice to the court of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, and his service as a courtier there.
Why It's Important: Rather than a tourist guide, the Travels of Marco Polo is actually a description of a global trade route, filled specific advice on conducting business in various regions. As such, it was the first book to promote globalization.
Fun Factoid: The book was so widely considered to be full of exaggerated lies that for 200 years after it was published, the term "a marco polo" held the same meaning for which today we'd use the term "a piece of BS."
Best Quote: "I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed."
4. The Rules of Double-Entry Bookkeeping (1494)
Author: Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli
Summary: This was the first published book to describe modern accounting, specifically double-entry bookkeeping with ledgers for assets, receivables, inventories, liabilities, capital, income, and expenses.
Why It's Important: Every financial statement for every company everywhere in the world now uses this system.
Fun Factoid: Pacioli and Leonardo da Vinci were what we'd today call BFFs.
Best Quote: "The Ancients, having taken into consideration the rigorous construction of the human body, elaborated all their works, as especially their holy temples, according to these proportions; for they found here the two principal figures without which no project is possible: the perfection of the circle, the principle of all regular bodies, the equilateral square, and the offer that verily canst not be refused."
5. The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Author: Adam Smith
Summary: Described and established the basic concepts of modern economics, including the division of labor, the nature of productivity, and the value of free markets.
Why It's Important: Prior to this book, people viewed economics through the lens of religious doctrine. Smith allowed governments and merchants to evaluate the effect of their behaviors and actions without recourse to supernatural explanations.
Fun Factoid: Despite being endlessly quoted by people who profit from "free markets," Smith neither believed in nor particularly recommended them.
Best Quote: "Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people."
6. Principles of Scientific Management (1911)
Author: Frederick Winslow Taylor
Summary: Established the concepts of efficiency and productivity, specifically in industrial engineering but eventually applied to all forms of human labor.
Why It's Important: Prior to this book, management was considered an innate talent rather than something that could be measured and therefore adjusted.
Fun Factoid: Taylor also pioneered the use of golf as an excuse to informally discuss business.
Best Quote: "In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first."
7. How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
Author: Dale Carnegie
Summary: A classic collection of observations and rules for cultivating strong friendships and business relationships.
Why It's Important: While there were no shortage of self-help books out at the time, Carnegie was the first to create a systematic approach that could be universally applied in business situations.
Fun Factoid: The original edition contained a (now omitted) set of suggestions for a happy marriage, including that spouses should read "a good book on the sexual side of marriage."
Best Quote: "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."