Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Business Types Read

[gary daily col. 8 March 17, 2002]

Digging around for figures on book sales, I found that twenty years ago household expenditures per year for books in the United States were $41. Even for the Reagan recession years, that seemed low to me. But then we all tend to peg our guesses on something we have no way of knowing on the personal information we have at hand. So, if I should ask you to tell me the number of miles the average person drives to get to Grandma’s house for Christmas, your guess would probably end up somewhere around the miles you personally clock on such a trip. Because of this tendency we are either floored or highly skeptical when we hear news like Bill Gates can bench press 450 pounds or Ken Lay or some other CEO, ex- or active, reads a book a week.

Personally, I like to believe the stories I read about the rich and infamous while I wait in the supermarket checkout line. If Gates is buff under those sack suits, as he might himself put it in that boyish manner of his, I say, “way cool.” The ancient Greeks believed in a strong mind in a strong body and that’s good enough for me. My “hope conquers reality” feelings do waver, however, when I turn to the light stuff in the financial press, the “Movin’ On Up–Biff Alger Meets the 21st Century, And Wins” kinds of stories. Or, always a favorite, “What so-and-so carries in her brief case when she’s off to negotiate those billion dollar mergers.”

These tales of thirty-somethings mapping their next conquest in some corner of the globe can be a stretch for my usually very plastic credulity sensors. I go along with the briefcase inventories: one cell phone the size of a pack of chewing gum; one change of underwear cleverly packed in a decorative bell purchased in Laos while participating in an Eco challenge event; and one vintage photo of a great- great relative who won the Civil War and is fifth on the list of persons who suffered the loss of a digit while exploring the uncharted islands of Baffin Bay. I’m glad to have all of my digits and could care less for a phone that is always within three feet of my ear, although I could use one of those boxers-in-a-bell things.

But then the tools of the trade list stops me in my tracks. There’s always THE BOOK. None of these movers and shakers goes anywhere without a book. And it’s never from the usual list of business type best sellers-- no “Mowing the Millionaire Next Door’s Lawn” or “Who Is Stealing My Cheese?” or the latest blockbuster on the street, “What’s New in Jack’s Gut?” I’ll give this much to the frequent flyer pharaohs, these are book books. Biography is very big. Preferably about military leaders. Better yet if the military leader was a Chinese philosopher. And Bingo! if you can find a biography of an Asian military philosopher who was also an explorer who lost a body part somewhere in the vicinity of the ends of the earth.

I even noticed a classic as part of the power cargo package a few weeks back. Someone was carrying along Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” a book whose volume exceeds that of most lap top computers. And this is when those credulity sensors start to meltdown. My memory bank creeps into life and I recall Woody Allen’s story about taking a speed reading course–zipping his finger down the center of page after page. He said he read “War and Peace” in twenty-minutes. And that it was about Russia.

So I’m left with mixed feelings. Try as I might, I can’t read a book a week like these titans of trade and finance. And it probably turns out that neither can they. I really wish they would read more books, and especially classics. It’s a jungle out there, red in tooth and claw and all of that pre-Intelligent Design stuff. These people are in charge of my modest retirement bread and butter, and I want my people to be as tough and as smart as any military-philosopher-explorer out there in the financial canyons of Buy, Sell and Hold. Still, I hold steadfastly to the belief that reading widely and deeply serves people and society in ways we should recognize and act on. We have been made acutely aware in recent months that the bottom line is not the measure of all that is good, just, or even efficient. Reading provides a perspective on life and our actions that goes beyond such one-dimensional measures. This is a good thing, isn’t it?

And I know I would feel better if I hadn’t remembered details of Woody Allen’s acquired reading “skills,” or if I hadn’t seen this ad in the “Wall Street Journal”: “Problem. So many great business books. So little time. – Solution. Read less learn more. Subscribe to Soundview Executive Book Summaries.” You get thirty, count them, thirty, books a year “condensed into an eight-page power-packed summary–.”

Eat your heart out, Woody. And all for the low price of $129 per. I wonder how that compares to the 41 bucks spent circa 1982 when you consider the inflation factor?

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