May 20, 2009
Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects - Minding the Store
Minding the Store: Great Writing About Business From Tolstoy to Now edited by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge, The New Press, 299 pages, $25.95, Hardcover, August 2008, ISBN 9781595583550
Many of the best-selling business books of the last thirty years are not based on exemplar companies, Fortune 500 CEOs or academic breakthroughs. Instead, they are completely made up; stories fabricated to make a grand point about how business should be practiced. Business fiction clearly attracts large audiences given the success of books like The One Minute Manager and Who Moved My Cheese? The biggest problem with this subgenre is formulaic writing that leaves the reader wondering if they haven't already read this one before (or in some cases, many times before).
However, fiction can still be a wonderful and intriguing tool for teaching business. Joseph Badaracco proved this in his book, Questions of Character, which we reviewed for Jack Covert Selects in 2006 and chose as one of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. Based on a course Badaracco taught at Harvard Business School, Questions of Character uses literature to explore the difficult questions leaders often face.
Before Badaracco, Pulitizer Prize-winning author Robert Coles was using fiction to teach ethics at Harvard. The dean of the business school caught wind of his work and asked Coles to develop a class for his students. That successful seminar is now also available in book form: Minding the Store, edited with Albert LaFarge, a collection of fiction stories and excerpts that illuminate the ethical and philosophical aspects of business.
The editors divided Minding the Store into five parts. The first section is on "the hard sell," followed by life in the office and how business affects life at home. The final two parts cover failure and death. Not the typical agenda items for the weekly brown bag lunch, but then Willy Loman (from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman) is not your typical field representative. From Flannery O'Connor to John Cheever to Vladimir Nabokov, this book features some of the best in literature, all of whom teach us a surprising amount about business through their insights into human nature.
And that is one of the results of reading good fiction; we become invested in the characters and wonder what we would do faced the same dilemmas. Minding the Store is a stimulating self-study course during which you will be challenged to construct the questions, as well as provide the answers. Some questions are clear and familiar, while others require deeper contemplation and personal resolution. Consider this your invitation to do some needed soul-searching, with these incredible stories as the guide.