Business Adventures by John Brookes: A Bible for billionaires

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are big fans of an out of print 1960s business book. Seth Stevenson thinks he knows why

It has recently emerged that America's two richest men share not only a fondness for bridge, but identical taste in literature. Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – according to an essay this week from Gates – count Business Adventures by John Brookes as their single favourite book about business. Why is this compendium of 1960s New Yorker articles catnip for billionaires?

1. The prose is superb: reading Brooks is a supreme pleasure. His writing turns eye-glazing topics (eg, price-fixing scandals in the electronics market) into rollicking narratives. He's also funny. In a piece about the spectacular failure of the Ford Edsel, Brooks describes the car's elaborate grille as "the charwoman trying on the duchess' necklace". Noting that an Edsel was stolen three days after its debut, he writes, "It can reasonably be argued that the crime marked the high-water mark of public acceptance of the Edsel; only a few months later, any but the least fastidious of car thieves might not have bothered."

Brooks wields a sharp dagger from a detached, chuckling remove – as when he writes that Clarence Saunders, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain, had "a gift, of which he may or may not have been aware, for comedy," or when he notes that Saunders "in his teens was employed by the local grocer at the pittance that is orthodox for future tycoons taking on their first jobs".

Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book (Getty) You know who sounds like Brooks? Warren Buffett. Classic homespun Buffett-isms such as "you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out" and "I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them, because sooner or later, one will," fit right in alongside Brooks' wry turns of phrase. It comes as no shock that Buffett loves this book, and it would likewise be no surprise if he'd consciously modelled his writing on it.

2. The reporting is nuanced: as Gates notes, Brooks eschews "listicles" and doesn't "boil his work down into how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success". Instead, he tells entertaining stories with richly drawn characters, set during heightened moments within the world of commerce. He invites the readers to draw their own conclusions about best practices. After reading these pieces, you can't help but see that businesses don't rise or plummet based on trendy strategies, advanced research or silly employee perks. Their fortunes are determined by small groups of humans – full of flaws and foibles – who come together, make decisions under pressure, and fail or succeed to create something larger than the sum of their parts.

3. The lessons still apply: when Brooks writes about the Edsel, he could easily be reporting on a disastrous consumer product launch that happened last week, with the attendant finger-pointing at marketing mishaps and engineering snafus. When he recounts an inexplicable three-day panic that occurred on Wall Street in 1962, he might as well be talking about the mysterious "Flash Crash" of 2010. When he writes about income tax flaws he could be filing a dispatch from any moment in the past century.

Perhaps the eeriest and most edifying piece from a modern-day perspective is Brooks' look inside Xerox during a moment of transition. Consider: in the mid-1950s, Americans made about 20 million photocopies annually, using bad technology that produced worse results. By 1964, after Xerox introduced xerography – a proprietary process that let copies be made on regular paper and with great velocity – that climbed to 9.5 billion. Two years later, it was 14 billion. Xerography was a technological revolution that some put on par with the wheel. Brooks describes a burgeoning "mania" for copying – "a feeling that nothing can be of importance unless it is copied, or is a copy itself".

The arrival of xerography spurred hopes and fears not unlike those stirred up in the early days of the World Wide Web. It turned office culture on its head and changed the nature of text propagation more than anything since the days of Gutenberg. As for Xerox the company, it was generating so much profit that it seemed as though its copier drums were spitting out hard currency. When Brooks pays a visit to the corporate campus in New York, he finds the executives' biggest concerns revolve around Xerox's charitable support for the United Nations.

Then, as now, disruption begat adaptation. Copying grew commonplace. Xerox ploughed its revenue into R&D in a search for the next hit, but never managed to translate its breakthroughs into best-selling products.

Bill Gates calls the Xerox piece one of Brooks' "most instructive stories". It's easy to see why the former Microsoft CEO might consider this the most poignant of tales among the many poignant tales that populate Business Adventures. In Xerox, we see a corporate behemoth with a single, killer product; a desperate, but mostly ineffective, effort to find something else that gets traction in the marketplace; and an embarrassment of riches that are nobly redirected towards global betterment.

As reports emerged that Microsoft will lay off up to 18,000 employees, and the Gates Foundation continued its quest to craft a better female condom, I couldn't help but wonder: was Gates dipping into his dog-eared copy of Business Adventures yet one more time? And if he did, would it be for wisdom or for succour?

© Slate

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence