An MBA student approached me on the subway recently with a copy of Barbarians at the Gate in hand and asked, "If you wanted to get smart about business by reading your way through the summer, what would your master reading list look like?" Here is my list of my absolute must-read business books.
The corrupt '80s
If I could read only one book this summer, it would be Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart, published in 1992 but just as relevant today. It's a masterful look at the insider trading scandals and greed on Wall Street of the late 1980s and mirrors much of the current narrative with colorful characters like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. Some of the great cliche phrases on Wall Street, like "Your bunny has a good nose!" will finally make sense when you finish this book.
Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, who chronicled what was at the time the largest takeover in history, the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts; and Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis, a romp through his time as a young trader at Salomon Brothers.
Underappreciated but often privately lauded among some of the best business writers in the country is The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, about the Archer Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal, but the reader doesn't have to care about agriculture to appreciate it. It reads like a John Grisham thriller.
The genre of narrative business books that I love so much — the ones that have a you-are-there quality — was invented, or so it is said, in 1982 by David McClintick, who wrote Indecent Exposure, about a Hollywood scandal and the ultimate boardroom power struggle at Columbia Pictures.
If you're trying to better understand what's going on in our economy now, to better appreciate the power of the Federal Reserve and all the financial issues being debated in Washington, a good place to start is Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his historical look at the many crises — and central bankers — that led up to the Great Depression. It is a favorite book of Ben S. Bernanke and Timothy F. Geithner. Also worth plucking off the shelf is Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman, which helped frame the debate about capitalism versus socialism.
By now, it seems as if everyone has already read Thomas L. Friedman's The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. It changed the way we think about global business, competitiveness and the implication for far-flung economies, governments, education and more.
Lives of the giants
For readers looking for a great biography, start with Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It provides remarkable insight into the eccentricities and drive of Jobs. Then grab Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.
Learn the tactics
While we're talking about titans and strategy, pick up The Art of War by Sun Tzu, an interesting window into the soul and strategy of much of the corporate world. An even deeper examination of modern management and strategy techniques is the ultimate philosophical classic: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.
Buffett likes this one
Perhaps the one "must" book on the list that will help you think about Wall Street, investing and, surprisingly, life is The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing by Benjamin Graham. It's at the top of Warren Buffett's list, and that's not a bad place to start.