Before I was a “recovering CEO-retiree,” I was, like most international business executives, an inveterate world traveler.
To fill the time, I would dispose of the usual paperwork, and, since I was often a non-sleeper on flights, I read. At first I chose business books but soon found them disturbingly similar: consultants or academics would name a dozen companies that were doing well at the moment, interview the willing CEOs about reasons for their success, find a compelling theme which tied the successes together and give it a clever title like “Management by…” The authors would then hit the speech circuit before the named companies, as they usually did, reverted to the mean—some better, some worse—but generally about average.
Of course, there were some very good ones—anything by Peter Drucker, for instance—but all too few. At some point, maybe while on a Japan trip, the idea occurred to me that I could use the time to become “educated” rather than just “trained,” as we once-chemistry majors were. So, I really started to read with the enthusiasm of a recovered alcoholic—all the stuff that History and English majors read—and found a new passion. They were the real deal. The guilt of spending time on something other than business titles on a business trip soon passed.
That newfound joy of reading for pleasure and eclectic learning has followed me into retirement. Summer reading always brings some historical treats and new rewards. For beach reading, it is hard to top any of the R.F. Delderfield stories of 19th and early 20th century England. He is a wonderful writer of complex sagas with more moving parts than R. Goldberg and Dickensian characters-within-characters. Start with To Serve Them All My Days (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972), a look inside English public schools for proper young men in the 1920s, with the twists and turns of romance and tragedy and much more. Next, move to one of his family saga trilogies: God Is an Englishman (Simon & Schuster, 1970), Theirs Was the Kingdom (Simon & Schuster, 1971) and Give Us This Day (Simon & Schuster, 1973). If more of Delderfield is desired, there is much more. Some are available on Amazon, but most can be ordered at my favorite out-of-print seller, AbeBooks.com.
To come back to our time, Scott Turow’s latest, Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), the sequel to his blockbuster of several years ago Presumed Innocent (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1987), is hard to top for beach reading—lots of twists and turns and an ending that will stun the reader. Also for the sand is John Grisham’s Ford County: Stories (Doubleday, 2009), short stories from the South with a bizarre group of denizens, all doing things that, well, bizarre denizens do. Another great read is A Silent Cry by Gerald D. McLellan (iUniverse, 2009), a fast-paced legal thriller by a former Massachusetts judge with great character definition and a courtroom finish that rings with authenticity.
The very best narrative I’ve found on the struggle to write the Constitution is Miracle at Philadelphia (Little, Brown, 1966) by Catherine Drinker Bowen. It’s a worthy reminder of days when citizen-politicians fought over principles rather than campaign funding—yet they still had time for mischief, self-interest and horse trading, which they eventually set aside for the common good.
The summertime also contains lots of WWII historic dates and that calls for at least a Churchill book or two. There were actually four good ones out this year. His life has been chronicled in such detail by his official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, that authors must select “vertical themes” like Patrick Cosgrave’s Churchill at War (Collins, 1974) and Churchill in America (Free Press, 2005), by Gilbert, plus there are a dozen other recent titles. In skilled hands such as Lynne Olson’s, it works. Her newest book (with the longish title) Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour (Random House, 2010) omits from the title only their names: Edward R. Murrow, W. Averell Harriman and Ambassador John G. Winant. The story of the first two has been told many times, the best being The Murrow Boys (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), the iconic war radio news team of the 1940s by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, and Spanning The Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman by Rudy Abramson (W. Morrow, 1992). But Winant has been largely ignored, and Olson tells why that should not be. He was an indefatigable salesman on behalf of England with FDR, and while Harriman, who as Lend-Lease representative sometimes thought himself the Ambassador and got in the way as a result, Winant and Murrow’s skills were often complementary.
Olson’s prior book, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), chronicles the backstage goings-on that pushed a “reluctant” Churchill forward as a candidate for prime minister. It’s hard to imagine Churchill “reluctant” about any opportunity to exert power and ideas, but Olson makes a good case.
Carlo D’Este (he of the wonderful General Patton biography) also places WSC in a vertical theme—his participation in many wars—tying it together with traits Churchill developed as a child (curiosity, impetuousness, imagination and determination) in Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (Harper, 2008). Max Hastings, a contemporary insider also does the vertical look in Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), a balanced portrayal of Churchill’s plusses and minuses—coming out much more plus—especially his ability to exhort his citizens to a “higher purpose,” which is a subject worth studying by executives who think it’s all about net present value.
For a succinct look at Churchill’s words, get The Quotable Winston Churchill (Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, 2005), assembled and edited by yours truly, available from Amazon. All proceeds benefit the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO, home of the famous “Iron Curtain Speech.” (Since this column doesn’t pay guest authors, one takes one’s plugs when available.)
Others not new but read recently: The Muse of The Revolution, by Nancy Rubin Stuart (Beacon Press, 2008), is a terrific story about a little-known Revolutionary War heroine, Mercy Otis Warren, one of the first to call attention, in stage-play format, to the shortcomings of British rule. Later, Warren championed the development of the Bill of Rights as a necessary and missing part of the original Constitution.
Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution (University of New Mexico Press, 2009) by Frances Burton is another in the genre of “things” which changed history. Read Salt: A World History (Walker & Co., 2002) and many other candidates, even Cod (Walker & Co., 1997), both by Mark Kurlansky.
And finally of note is America 1908 (Scribner, 2007), the chronicle of a pivotal year in our history: the dawn of flight, the Model T, polar exploration and America’s coming of age as a world player. It is ably told by Jim Rasenberger.
One could go on, but summer finally ends—to say nothing of an editor’s space allocation.
Richard J. Mahoney, former chairman and CEO of Monsanto & Co., is executive in residence at both the Olin School of Business and the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.