Great Books That Shaped The B-School Elite

by Neelima-Mahajan-Bansal on

“A good book is always on tap; it may be decanted and drunk a hundred times, and it is still there for further imbibement.” — Holbrook Jackson

A great book is more than a good read. It can help inform and shape your ideas and thoughts–even your life. So we asked leading professors from top business schools–many of them authors themselves–to name the books that have had a profound influence on them, including the one title they couldn’t live without and would bring with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. Their selections are often surprising and amusing, ranging from Bob Dylan’s Chronicles to the Boy Scout Handbook.

Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth's Tuck School

SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN

Steven Roth Professor of Management, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

Which book has influenced you the most? Why?

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman. She writes about “wooden-headedness”, the tendency of powerful people in history to do incredibly self-destructive things. When I first read The March of Folly, I was floored by the relevance and fascinating stories of Prime Ministers, Presidents, Popes, and military rulers, each of whom were personally responsible for massive mistakes that changed history. It was this book that gave birth to my own research on business failure that led to Why Smart Executives Fail. The March of Folly is a hugely influential work. And in the age of Schwarzenegger, Weiner, Edwards, DSK, et al, it is still very relevant.

What do you plan to read next?

Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. I’m a big fan of Gretchen’s, and I think this is a book where she takes no prisoners. 

I also plan to read The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough. There are few better storytellers who take in an expanse of history like McCullough. The fact that his subject this time is Paris makes it all the more enticing.

What do you prefer — real books or digital devices?

I like to hold a physical book, but plan to add a Kindle soon. I am a notorious late adopter of gadgets, but it may be time.

Apart from management books, which genres do you like best?

My interests are eclectic. I like to read all sorts of books, as long as they pass my fundamental test – the writing must be magnificent. I’ve started, and discarded, many books that couldn’t keep me entranced because of mediocre writing. What do I like? I like anything about Sherlock Holmes or great chefs. I enjoy historical fiction, biographies and the occasional business book (unfortunately, most don’t pass the test).

One of my favorites is Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan. It offers a glimpse into the prolific mind of how Dylan worked, with occasional detours to seemingly irrelevant events. My biggest insight: he was a scholar of early Americana that didn’t get to Tangled Up in Blue by accident. And I thought Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink was fascinating. Malcolm is probably the best writer on business topics around today. Maybe that’s because he’s not a businessman, scholar or teacher. He’s a journalist who has mastered the art of storytelling. His thesis: people rely on gut instinct to make decisions, and often it works. Of course, my students and consulting clients may not be so fond of the word “often” in this sentence, but that’s what happens when an author has a strong point of view. Blink is a great Step 1 for anyone interested in understanding how people make decisions, but advanced work will be essential.

If you are stranded alone on an island which is the one book you would like for company and why?

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. I loved this book! A brilliant writer (and former editor of the New Yorker), Buford profiles super-chef Mario Batali, but really takes readers on a journey of personal self-discovery and reinvention. It’s an inspirational book — as long as the island has good takeout available.

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