The science is pretty conclusive: Reading literature is an excellent empathy workout. Fiction helps us think through complex problems and understand the perspectives of others, boosting EQ. Which is a pretty good reason -- beyond sheer pleasure -- to make time for great novels in your life.
But if you want to get even more out of your time reading fiction as an entrepreneur, why not consider reading not just great novels, but great novels about business? That's the suggestion of Daniel Akst, who writes a monthly column on the topic of business in literature for Strategy + Business.
"Fiction is replete with morally complex stories that shed light on leadership, work, and life in ways that management texts can't hope to emulate," he insists in the introduction to a fun quiz he recently created for The Wall Street Journal to gauge your knowledge of the best literary portrayals of business.
You might not be ready to ace that quiz yet if reading business-themed literature is a fresh idea for you, but Akst's quiz is still a good place to get some inspiration for classic business novels to add to your reading list. Here are 10 he mentions.
1. The Financier by Theodore Dreiser
The Financier, says Akst, is a "fast-paced account of a ruthless Philadelphia streetcar speculator who runs afoul of the law," based on the life of real-life tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes Jr. Full of double-dealing and brutality, the gritty novel is a less flattering take on the classic rags-to-riches story.
2. The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan
Looking for a less grim take on the rags-to-riches genre? Try this novel published in 1917 "about a penniless immigrant who achieves great success in the garment business," suggests Akst. One contemporary critic praised its "intimate and sophisticated account of American business culture."
3. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Maybe you've seen the Orson Welles movie adaptation of this classic novel, but Akst recommends reading the original Pulitzer Prize-winning book for its ability "to demonstrate the transformative power of technology and the risks of depending on who you are rather than what you can do."
4. The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett
This "great novel of two sisters and two businesses in the 19th century" is worth reading for the way it "captures the evolution of modern commercial culture," Akst claims. He quotes a critic who raves about the book, "Each time I'm in the midst of reading it, I think it's the best novel ever written."
5. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
This early novel from German Nobel laureate Thomas Mann follows four generations of a wealthy family in Northern Germany. "The Buddenbrooks' troubles aren't terribly different from the ones that bedevil family firms to this day," insists Akst.
6. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Transporting readers to Manchester, England, during the industrial revolution, this classic Victorian novel "skillfully weaves a compelling love story into a clash between the pursuit of profit and humanitarian ideals," according to Amazon.
7. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Beloved by libertarians and loathed by just about everyone else (including book critics), this philosophically freighted tale of a dystopian business-unfriendly future is still "one of the most popular and influential books ever published in America," according to Akst, which earns the book a place on this list despite its dubious literary merits.
8. JR by William Gaddis
"JR defies easy summary, but at the center of its various plotlines is an 11-year-old tycoon by the name of JR Vansant, who stumbles on the power of finance," explains Akst. He reassures nervous readers that the 700-page book "is far easier to read than it looks--and frequently laugh-out-loud funny."
9. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
A classic of slightly more recent vintage, American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal "of a businessman who does everything right yet still comes to grief," says Akst. "You'll weep at the fate of the book's dutiful hero, whose decency and discipline are no match for the '60s and '70s," he adds.
10. Nice Work by David Lodge
This 1988 novel is about a manufacturing executive and a literature professor who fall in love despite their vast differences, with hilarious results. A New York Times review called it "a funny, intelligent, superbly paced social comedy."
Once you've gotten through all these, give Akst's quiz a try and see how well you remember what you've read.