Asking prominent people in business what's on their summer reading lists, something I do almost every June, sometimes reveals a list of books that in some ways captures the sign of the times. A few years ago, books about Iraq, Middle Eastern history and terrorism were in vogue, reflecting our attention to the uncertainties of the post-9-11 era and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In other years, certain blockbuster books were commonly cited, especially New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century or Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner as well as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Dan Brown's 2003 whopper of a religious thriller, The Da Vinci Code, also was popular.
This summer, no must-read business book dominates. No escapist bestseller repeats. What we do get is an eclectic mix of business books seeking insight into social media, personal motivation and discovery, faith-inspired leadership and bedrock roots of our seemingly off-kilter economy. For pure summer fun, most of the area business folks who shared their summer lists are big on history with just a hint of more popular entertainment with a Dan Brown sequel and that perennial favorite: books about baseball.
As Central Florida market president of the health care giant Humana (and also 2010 chair of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce), Sid Morgan admits he's swamped with work and another project soon to come to light. But he obviously loves baseball, having recently read the 2003 Michael Lewis favorite, MoneyBall, and former Tampa Bay Devil Ray owner Vince Naimoli's 2009, self-published Business, Baseball & Beyond.
Beyond baseball, Morgan's into poetry — not your usual executive literary wandering. He's sampled poems from one book, praising Walt Whitman's There Was A Child Went Forth, and also notes the poems about Florida written by Donald Eastman, Eckerd College president, in his book Poems for Parker.
Over the July 4 weekend, Morgan's already reserved his reading time to tackle The Traveler's Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success by Andy Andrews. Curiously, it's a book title we ran into five years ago when I first had a chance to sit down with TECO Energy CEO Sherrill Hudson. The Tampa executive was so high on this entertainingly crafted book about learning great personal lessons from some of history's great figures that Hudson had shared copies of the book with TECO management.
Among the more serious business books offered up this summer comes one from the College of Business dean at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Dr. Maling Ebrahimpour. He's reading The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Social Media, Blogs, News Releases, Online Video, and Viral Marketing to reach Buyers Directly, by David Meerman Scott. Says the dean: "I like to know what is going on with social media. I am trying to learn how to more effectively use these tools to bring more positive visibility to the College of Business at USF St. Petersburg."
Another no-nonsense reader is Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio who, while confessing she loves mysteries, is perusing 2009's False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Financial Times editor Alan Beattie. It uses world trade examples to examine the plight of various countries, but he insists that it is not destiny but the right and wrong decisions by political leaders that cause societies to rise and fall. Let's hope Mayor Iorio shares those finding with some of her less enlightened political peers.
Carissa Caricato directs marketing at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay but also co-chairs the Emerge Tampa group, a chamber affiliate that encourages business, community and networking involvement by younger business people. She says her Bible is a frequent companion, but she is finishing Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones, along with Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by marketing guru Seth Godin, about getting people excited about new things. That should dovetail nicely with her Emerge Tampa role. For herself, Caricato's just read Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul, by John and Stasi Eldredge.
"Everyone to me is a book, which may be why I have less time to read alone," says Caricato.
Now come the history buffs, who draw business lessons from their reading as well as broader perspective and some good ol' escapism. Just ask Tim Main, CEO in St. Petersburg of global electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit, who was reading history even when I inquired years ago. "Honestly, I don't read many business books," says Main. "My reading is a bit of escapism from work." As proof, Main says he just finished "good but not great" The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History by Justin Marozzi, about 6th century B.C. Persian-Greek conflicts. Main's more jazzed about Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which he picked up at the Detroit airport. "It's an absolute riot," Main says, "with flashes of Dominican history."
Before starting False Economy, Mayor Iorio read Jay Winik's April 1865. Iorio calls it "required reading for anyone who believes our country cannot work through its current problems." It describes the month when the Civil War reached a conclusion and Lincoln was assassinated. "What a perspective to read about the shambles our country was in at the end of the Civil War — the economy shattered, 620,000 dead and political turmoil," Iorio says. "And yet our country didn't just survive, it thrived, a changed but enduring nation."
We can forgive Tampa Bay Rays senior vice president Michael Kalt for moving slowly through the middle of Ron Chernow's 832-page (paperback) biography Alexander Hamilton. Kalt got married a few weeks ago and just returned from his honeymoon. Hamilton, Kalt says, was basically the founding father whose vision for the nation most closely mirrored the country we've become today, for both better and worse. "It's fascinating to see how so many of the issues he tackled over 200 years ago, such as the role the federal government should play in the banking system, still impact us profoundly today," Kalt says.
If there's one mainstream book in all of these recommendations, it's Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. USF business dean Ebrahimpour is reading it "just for the fun of it."
Not that we can leave this column unscathed by the chaos that Wall Street excess has wrought on the modern U.S. economy. Jabil Circuit's Main acknowledges he may take a break from history to read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, written by the same Michael Lewis of Moneyball, Liar's Poker and The Blind Side fame. The Big Short, of course, is about the causes of the financial crisis, told in a way that makes Lewis one of the best economic writers around.
"Several people have recommended it," says Main, who pretty much sums up the financial crisis pretty well himself. "I just hope it's more entertaining than the real-life horror story. There's no happy ending in it for most folks."
Contact Robert Trigaux at Trigaux@sptimes.com.