The Cynic’s Guide to Reading Business Books

How to get the most out of CEO biographies and business tomes — and not just the lessons they want to teach you

Byrne Hobart
Marker
Published in
11 min readDec 11, 2019

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Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

The book begins in medias res, at a moment of high tension. The author, a middle-aged journalist writing for a prestige business publication but worried about his financial future in an age of declining circulation and endless job cuts, quickly describes the protagonist. Musing on the lucrative speaking gigs available to a New York Times bestselling author, he establishes what his protagonist has at stake; as he outlines the consequences of failure, he inwardly cringes at the thought of the cost of a Park Slope apartment and an also-in-Park-Slope preschool.

With a second, much shorter paragraph, the stage is set: the prototypical business book has begun.

— Catchphrase: The Wild, Improbable Story of a Company Whose Hype Cycle Hopefully Peaks Right Around Our Expected Publication Date

I’I’ve read a lot business profiles. Successes, failures, frauds, fads, financial engineers — anyone who turned a little money into a lot or a lot into a little. And some of these profiles, the book industry decides, are worthy of the roughly 300-page treatment.

The book-length business profile is a unique genre, because it’s both a story and a manual. There are plenty of how-to books, but those books usually file the serial numbers off their examples. You could read someone’s vague advice on when to fire an unpopular high performer — or you can read about exactly what happened when one company had to do this and draw your own lesson from that.

Some people will read a book about Uber because they’re afraid of what the company’s doing, and others will read it because that’s what they’d like to be doing. Sometimes, you want a Horatio Alger story about a scrappy outsider who took on the establishment and won; other times, you want a Stephen King novel about the unspeakable horrors being unleashed at this very moment on the unsuspecting. Sometimes, it’s the very same book: one reader’s scrappy antihero is another’s amoral villain.

For a book to happen, you need a confluence of events: a story worth telling…

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Byrne Hobart
Marker
Writer for

I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: https://diff.substack.com/