Business Novels and Good Character(s)

THIS IS A GUEST POST, BY CHRISTOPHER MICHAELSON, Associate Professor of ethics and business law at Opus college of Business, University of St. Thomas

What books have shaped your personal and professional values? At a World Economic Forum session in Davos a few years ago, a panel of leaders identified four “classics of business literature”: Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, along with Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Even if you haven’t read those books – and most of us who know of them haven’t actually read them – it’s not too much of an imaginative leap to conclude that the values perceived by these leaders to produce wealth include a Hobbesian combination of fear, fight, and fitness.

A more humane perspective on twenty-first century global capitalism is that it can grow the wealth of individuals and nations by satisfying needs and wants without resorting to deceptive, combative, and cutthroat tactics. However, succeeding at business ethically requires not only moral character; it requires moral imagination – the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes to evaluate a problem and consider solutions from a moral perspective. You might not discover moral imagination in the works of an economist, political scientist, military strategist, and biologist, but you might find it in works of the creative imagination by great novelists.

Why novels? Most of us read fictional literature because we humans are storytelling creatures who discover our values in the stories we hear, read, and tell. Research suggests that reading good novels cultivates empathy and emotional intelligence (for example, see Mar et al. 2006 and Nussbaum 1995), essential traits for business leaders and well-adjusted human beings. Business professionals and students rarely have a break from the value-maximizing narrative that suggests that everything that matters can be measured. A great book can be ethically useful, but it can also be aesthetically priceless.

One reason we might not read novels about business is that there aren’t many good ones. Most novelists don’t know much about business, and besides, most of us would rather read about love, death, and adventure than about office life. Another reason is that it takes time to read hundreds of pages, time business usually doesn’t afford us. Moreover, if you really want to read a book that’s relevant to global capitalism today, you might not believe that the Gothic monster tale you didn’t finish when you took Nineteenth Century British Fiction in college will have much to say about emerging markets.

There are some classic and contemporary novels, however, that strike a balance of quality, length, and relevance to modern business. Here is a handful of good to great ones to consider, all of which I’ve had success with in business classrooms:

  • The Circle (2013), by Dave Eggers, is about the loss of privacy and corporatization of everything made possible by the power of social media, as realized by the company that is the namesake of the book’s title. 491pp.
  • The December in A Week in December (2009), by Sebastian Faulks, is in 2007, now a seminal year in business history. The characters in the book – including the book’s central character, John Veals, a hedge fund trader attempting simultaneously to augment his wealth by bringing down a bank, leaving collateral damage with which he is unconcerned –are as unaware of the economic calamity that awaits them as the world actually was at that time. 400pp.
  • Like Faulks’ characters, the ones in the title of Leo Tolstoy’s Master and Man (1895) are oblivious of a looming catastrophe. The novella tells the story of a businessman and peasant who set out on an evening journey through a snowstorm so that the master can close a land purchase before competitors arrive to bid up the price. The travelers’ journey of wrong turns leads the reader to consider the relationship between risk, reward, and the point of no return. 50pp.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), by Mohsin Hamid, is a riveting conversation between Changez– a young strategy consultant who leaves his job in the United States to return home to Lahore, Pakistan – and “you,” a visitor to Lahore to whom Changez’ narrative is addressed. While traveling to various emerging markets to serve his clients, Changez observes a change in the American climate and treatment of his compatriots after terrorist attacks near and in his home and host countries in 2001. 224pp.
  • Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is not just a Gothic monster tale. It can be read today as a prophetic vision for technology entrepreneurs and innovators regarding our responsibility for what happens to our creations after they have been imposed upon the world. 336pp.

Will reading these books make you a better person? A better businessperson? It depends on whom you ask. Literary critic Harold Bloom asserted that “reading the very best writers…is not going to make us better citizens” while snobbishly suggesting that bad books might be even worse for the character. However, philosophers and social scientists have contended that reading novels with the purpose of developing our moral awareness, sensitivity, and imagination can cultivate valuable reflection on our values and character. It can help us rehearse difficult decisions in the way that case studies can do those things – only novels do it with greater depth, they are more memorable, and they are more fun to read.

What do you think? Please send me a comment to let me know what you’re reading and how it’s influencing you, and I might add it to a list of additional suggestions, below

Christopher Michaelson [cmmichaelson AT]