Books of the Year: Off-screen fantasy and online reality

MT asked three well-known and well-read business celebrities to tell us about their best reads of 2007. First up, and with as broad a range as you could wish...

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My first choice is Suspects by David Thomson, first published in 1985 and now reissued. It's a unique work: it takes about 50 fascinating fictional characters from Hollywood films noirs and paints biographical sketches of them. So it profiles Harry Lime from The Third Man, Jake Gittes from Chinatown, Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Walker from Point Blank and so on. Each is a brilliantly written brief life going far beyond any celluloid existence.

Many of the suspects interconnect in a surreal series of imagined tales extrapolated from the movies. It brings some of the greatest screen figures alive in a fresh way. An ingenious book, and great for dipping into on short journeys.

The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen is a polemic by an expert on the internet, who argues that the online explosion is undermining our culture and damaging our economy.

Keen argues that the digital revolution promotes plagiarism, bias and piracy, invades our privacy and permits endless new forms of fraud. He worries that experts and professional editors will disappear, to be replaced by a Wikipedia mob.

Will the trivial mayhem of YouTube really supplant serious public service broadcasting? I don't agree with all his theories, but Keen deserves to be taken seriously: he is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has started several web companies, and I admire his bravery in arguing against the vociferous IT crowd.

A different sort of book is Heath Robinson's Contraptions, a collection of some of the finest illustrations by a quintessentially English comic artist. It has about 150 A4 black-and-white and colour reproductions of his mad inventions, drawn between 1900 and 1940.

Robinson was a magnificent fantasist but also a consummate draughtsman, and the detail and humour in his work are wonderful. The introduction provides a brief biography of the artist, who emerges as a decent and thoughtful soul. His work was a celebration of an imagined Edwardian boffin, living in a gentler and more eccentric universe than our own.

A tougher, much more American volume is Sweet and Low: A family story by Rich Cohen. It tells the story of the author's family, and especially his grandfather Ben, who invented the idea of packets of low-calorie artificial sweetener ('Sweet'N Low'). Part history of their firm, Cumberland Packing Corporation, part history of a feuding Jewish family, it's also a depiction of Brooklyn, corruption, the sugar business, the diet industry and the pain of disinheritance.

The entire saga is true and rather sad, but also a tremendous example of how fortunes are made and lost, how companies rise and fall, and how close relatives can betray each other when it comes to money.

My final choice is Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world's leading entrepreneurs by Danny Meyer. The author is not well known in London, but in New York he is considered a legendary restaurateur. He runs many of that city's finest establishments, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, both outstanding dining places and very successful. The author has written a cross between a management text and an autobiography - and in doing so has produced one of the best books I've ever read about the business of owning and running restaurants.

Its real value is to those like me who are actually in the business and can always learn from a master.

Former Pizza Express boss Luke Johnson is chair of Channel 4 and a partner at Risk Capital Partners

David Thomson
No Exit Press

The Cult of the Amateur
Andrew Keen
Nicholas Brealey

Heath Robinson
Gerald Duckworth

Sweet and Low: A family story
Rich Cohen
Jonathan Cape

Setting the Table
Danny Meyer

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