May 24, 2005
News & Opinion: When Good Companies Spawn Bad Books, and Vice Versa
So Bill Gates plans to author a new business book. Yawn. If its anything like his previous dull, sanitized effort, this book will be about as intriguing as the instruction manual to Windows. Ive found very few books about Microsoft to have much value, which raises an interesting question. Why do some great companies spur terrible books, while other exemplary ones inspire great titles? Consider IBM. I cant think of a company that has produced a richer collection of business books. Jim Collins, in an excellent essay that details an epic story arc derived from three great IBM studies, finds much value in Big Blue books. Enron, on the other hand, was a spectacular failure that led to superlative books. Jack loves Kurt Eichenwalds A Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story. I just finished The Smartest Guys in the Room, which is one of my favorite books of the past yeara thoroughly researched and beautifully written book propelled by a bemused tone of horror from two smart journalists. And the recent documentary, adapted from the book, has received glowing reviews. And lets not forget the good old IRS. What is it about the bureaucracy that spawns such good business books? Weve mentioned Many Unhappy Returns ,the recent Charles Rossotti bookwhich is a fine memoir about trying to tackle a political organization with mere business skills. Id add to this tout two more great reads. First off, Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Mans Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey, which is an utterly delicious first-person account of twelve years inside the organization. Yancey is a writer at heart, which explains why he initially saw the gig as a day job to pay the bills while he wrote at night. But over the years he couldnt help but internalize the code. The drama of his job distracted him from writing plays, and over time he found himself eventually seeing the world through the eyes of the IRS. His sharp-eyed story reads like a mix of Charles Bukowskis Post Office, Mike Daiseys Doing Time at Amazon, Bill Bufords Among the Thugs, all mixed with a bit of Bartleby the Scrivenor. For those of you who question the fairness of the tax system, David Cay Johnstons Perfectly Legal will confirm your worst suspicions. This impressively researched and stridently written book exposes the glaring flaws of the federal tax code. In particular, the daunting and persistent loopholes that enable the wealthiest to skirt their fair share, and, to pass on the bill to those down the food chainthe already challenged middle class. The fact that a growing number of individuals today must pay the Alternative Minimum Tax, thereby defeating its very purpose, is but one striking finding. At any rate, what companies would you nominate in this category? Which have led to great books, and which have inspired turkeys?