Business Books: The cover vs. the core

7 12 2009

For a person who deeply loves Biology and keeps blogging about Darwin, I have to confess: I never read The Origin of Species, only parts of it. There, I said it. I actually tried to go through it a few times, the last attempt being via Stanza on my iPhone:

Stanza for the iPhone: Origin of Species

Heck, I haven’t even skimmed Origin‘s Cliff’s Notes (that’s just a figure of speech: there’s none, actually) so you can say that my knowledge of what Darwin said or thought is like second-hand smoking or back-seat driving: mostly hear-say. Some saving grace are those 5 years spent at University studying Biology. Furthermore, I would guess that most Biology students (at least in Brazil) have never seen a copy of Origin either.

On a smaller scale, many of us have a similar approach with business books. We have not read most of them – well except maybe Sacha did :-) , but we often have an opinion about them, typically based on indirect evidence.

I usually don’t go through the same book twice – life is short and time is at a premium, but I recently made an exception with The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) and The Long Tail (2006), two books that have been much maligned by supposedly championing the advent of new business models that never materialized or that failed to deliver at the promise.

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

Their respective authors even had faceoffs of sorts with the excellent Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink fame, one friendly, the other not so much. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Slate’s Book Club feature, you are in for a treat. It’s kind of The Next Supermodel for the written world. I know that doesn’t sound very enticing, but the series is really good.

The major problem I see with both books is not their content: it’s their covers. Both books are fairly balanced in their core and depict scenarios showing both supporting evidence and possible shortcomings for their arguments. But their covers are not as nuanced. Why the future of business is selling less of more and Why the many are smarter than the few, besides sounding like catch phrases written by the same marketing wiz, are hardly shy in the over-promising department.

My learning going through the re-reading process is that I have a much better appreciation for the content of these books now that they don’t have all the buzz around them. It’s like listening to popular songs from the past years after they fell in oblivion. You can more clearly see their actual merits and limitations, without being so influenced by the media. So, if you haven’t yet, give them a try, you may still learn a thing or two, no matter if you believe in their premises or not.

I can’t help but think that, if The Origin of Species was published today, instead of the dull sub-title The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, it would bring something like: Why everything you knew about life will change forever.

The Origin of Species, original cover

The Origin of Species, original cover (Darwin Online)

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2 responses

8 12 2009
bartman905

Glad to see you back to blogging regularly again … I look forward to reading your always thought provoking posts!

Like you, I don’t normally re-read the same book twice. But I actually did bring The Long Tail with me all the way here to Japan (not sure why because I had already read it) – since I have it, maybe I should re-read it, no?

Have you read Chris Anderson’s latest book titled “Free”? I just finished it and I would recommend it, as he talks about business models based on free. Very interesting.

8 12 2009
Aaron

Hey Ric, thanks for the visit!

No, I did not read “Free”, I listened to it :-) I downloaded it (for free!) here:

http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2009/07/free-for-free-first-ebook-and-audiobook-versions-released.html

I liked it too, but that book is being massively criticized by many, most prominently here:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/07/06/090706crbo_books_gladwell

And you can find the rebuke here, along with some interesting and some agressive commentary too:

http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/06/dear-malcolm-why-so-threatened/

I typically don’t like Seth Godin much, but he made some good points about the merits of “Free” too:

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/06/malcolm-is-wrong.html

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