Books of the year

MT asked two book-loving business figures to share their favourite reads of 2008...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


The great attraction of a book is the control it gives to the reader. It's available any time and anywhere. Also, combined with a bit of imagination, it can conjure up an unlimited number of places and eras. In 2008, books took me to meet a Bangalore entrepreneur, to an office products superstore in Vancouver, to see new communities springing up over the internet, and to Wall Street in 1929. All provided stimulating business ideas.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga thoroughly deserved its recent Booker prize. It is the rags-to-relative-riches story of Balram Halwai, who makes the journey from illiterate peasant in an obscure village in India to owning a thriving taxi company servicing the internet and call-centre operators in booming Bangalore.

Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, paints a vivid picture of the contrast between urban and rural India, populated by ultra-traditional families, brutal landlords and corrupt politicians. The way Halwai achieves his commercial rise is shocking and unethical. For any business traveller who has sat in an interminable Indian traffic jam, The White Tiger gives an insight into what is really happening outside the car window.

In December 2007, office products retailer Staples opened its 2,000th superstore - in Bangalore, to service the very companies whose staff ride to work in Halwai's taxis. A giant Staples in Vancouver is the setting for Canadian author Douglas Coupland's latest book, The Gum Thief. He has already written landmark books about the lifestyles of office workers: Generation X introduced the idea of mindless, de-skilled 'McJobs'. Jpod showed the insane working environment and lifestyle of the people who write computer games.

The two main characters of The Gum Thief are lowly and downtrodden retail workers: a divorced, alcoholic, 40-something, male would-be writer and a disillusioned, 20-something goth girl. They exchange letters and complain to each other about modern life on the bottom rung of the retail ladder. It's funny, insightful and a bit weird. Heaven knows what the Staples management made of it all.

A thousand miles south sits Palo Alto - ground zero for online business models. It's also the breeding ground of the phenomenon of using social networks to design goods and services, so well described in Crowdsourcing by Jeff Howe - which I reviewed for MT in September. Companies get their own customers to design and refine products to reduce risk and provide a ready-made market.

Howe defines his term as 'the coming together of people to perform tasks, usually for little or no money, that were once the sole province of employees'. The idea has deep economic implications.

I had the good fortune to receive my fourth book as a gift. At the start of this year, the founder of Terra Firma, private equity titan Guy Hands, sent his business contacts a new edition of JK Galbraith's classic The Great Crash 1929. Guy's timing was eerily prescient, giving us the chance to read up over the summer on the forerunner of our present economic train wreck.

First published in 1954, Galbraith's book is beautifully written and shockingly relevant to 2008. It outlines the causes of the Great Crash, with uncontrolled speculation first in land assets in Florida (read sub prime) and later in equities, financed by borrowing using exotic techniques (read hedge funds and derivatives). Banks collapsed and asset values slumped for 25 years. Galbraith is funny and scathing about what he saw as the root of the problem: simple greed, with people believing they could get rich without working.

Taken together, these four books provided an enjoyable and valuable insight into the emergence of new economies and business models, tempered by insights into the depressing nature of many modern jobs and the fragile state of the financial system.

The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga
Atlantic Books £12.99

The Gum Thief
Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury £10.99

Jeff Howe
Random House £17.99

The Great Crash 1929
JK Galbraith
Penguin Books £9.99

Roger Parry is chairman of marketing communications group Media Square


John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 wasn't published until the mid-1950s. By that reckoning, we can't expect the best book on our credit crunch to appear until 2032. Meanwhile, it's probably better to go for authors comfortable with a great sweep of history, on the familiar grounds that if we fail to learn from it, we will repeat its mistakes. That won't stop us making new mistakes, but at least it's a start.

On that score, Niall Ferguson's timing with The Ascent of Money is perfect. We're all in the mood to relearn the origins of the word 'credit' (from credo, 'I believe'). And much more in this exploration of the trust-based phenomenon of the value of intrinsically valueless pieces of metal, paper or online entries in bank statements.

Another great global sweep is provided by Chris Patten's What Next? There's an art in sub-titles, and Surviving the 21st century is a great one for the present mood. Lord Patten's 'funny old world' is more one of international political forces than of derivative trades. But he's hugely qualified, by experience and intellect, to grapple with the issues that span politics and business - and he's a wonderful writer.

The last electorally successful chairman of the British Conservative party, governor of Hong Kong, European Commissioner for External Relations, he is co-chair of the International Crisis Group - and no stranger to the 'real world' of business. Among other things, he is (I declare a common interest) on the board of Cadbury.

In his view, usually the puzzle is not 'What is to be done?' but rather 'Who is to do it and how?' In other words, it is a lack of will, or capacity to act, that is the fundamental problem. That seems unarguable with respect to, say, environmental pollution, only one of a formidable list of global issues covered in this tour de force. But it's not quite so obvious that the 'what?' of economic policy is easier than the 'who?'. After all, governments are anxious to stave off a prolonged depression, but decidedly uncertain about what to do.

Still, Patten's general principle is a useful counterpart to those who think getting the right economic policies in place is a crank-the-handle mechanical problem. Economics is about human behaviour. There's plenty of mystery left in the best of models. And the credibility of people like central bankers is as important as what they do.

Meanwhile, is anyone giving them good 'what?' answers? When Markets Collide by Mohamed El-Erian is a good first explanation of what has happened in the financial markets. And he has the decency not to stop there, but to try hard at the answers too, even while events are progressing at such speed. It's courageous to put your thoughts into the slow process of publication at the height of a storm, and the result is well worth reading.

Any light relief? Well, 976 pages is not a light read, but you can find plenty of the Sage of Omaha's wisecracks in The Snowball by Alice Schroeder, who spoke at length to Buffett. She has done a good job to capture the genius of the man.

Finally, a couple to get away from it all. Revelation (Macmillan, £12.99) is a reminder that this is not the most cataclysmic moment since time began. In all the outpourings about the Tudors, no-one gives as believable a picture of turbulence and economic revolution as CJ Sansom.

I shall solace myself over Christmas with PD James's latest whodunnit (or I will if any of my family read this review). It's called The Private Patient (Faber & Faber, £18.99), folks - and that's your mother ticked off the present list.

The Ascent of Money: A financial history of the world
Niall Ferguson
Allen Lane £25

What Next? Surviving the 21st century
Chris Patten
Allen Lane £25

When Markets Collide: Investment strategies for the age of global
economic change
Mohamed El-Erian
McGraw-Hill £15.99

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the business of life
Alice Schroeder
Bloomsbury £25

Baroness Sarah Hogg is chairman of 3i Group and Frontier Economics.

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