Why novels are essential business reading
September 5, 2013
Back in June I wrote a post about why I was sticking to the day job, rather than indulging my hankering to write a novel. Entitled “Five books that plunge a dagger into the heart of the aspiring novelist” it was a way of sharing some of my favourite authors with all my millions of readers (I wish).
Get on with some real work!
I then, in a not-so-subtle attempt to get traffic to my post under the guise of starting a Linkedin discussion, asked fellow members of some business groups what kind of novels they liked to read for relaxation. Only a couple of people commented – and were none too positive. They replied rather tetchily that they were far too busy to read novels. There was a strong suggestion that consuming anything but weighty business tomes, or inspirational self-development guides, was a frivolous waste of time – novels were for losers.
I wrote a reply, then deleted it – sounded too artsy-fartsy. I wrote another reply, then deleted that too – too confrontational. Then I though **** it, and went down to Waterstones to feed my sad fiction addiction.
Yah, boo, sucks
A month later I stumbled across an interesting article, published in the authoritative Harvard Business Review, that made me feel smugly vindicated. Written by a successful Executive Vice President, Anne Kreamer (not a professor of literature!), The business case for reading novels argued that this is actually a very smart way to get ahead in today’s commercial world – the ROI on reading fiction is excellent.
She cites data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skilfulness.
She goes on to reveal “a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathetic and theory of mind abilities”. Theory of mind, she explains, is the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients. And she reminds us that “This is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others’ points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.”
Yeah, right, you tell ‘em lady! Tolstoy rocks! Charles Dickens, you da man! Thomas Hardy…respect!
So, if you are going to read novels to enhance your performance in the workplace, what would I recommend? On the basis that you’ll feel slightly less guilty if some of the action takes place in the world of business try these for starters.
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
The book charts the fall of Wall Street Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy and is a swirling drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New YorkCity. Meticulously researched by the journalist turned novelist it has a richness of detail that paints a vividly realistic picture of the knotty underside of life’s rich tapestry.
The Fear Index by Robert Harris
A bad day in the life of Geneva based hedge fund manager Dr Alex Hoffman. Without giving too much away, the story has a twist that’s reminiscent of Frankenstein. Which is nicely ironic – Mary Shelley had the idea for her famous novel whilst staying in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, and the landscape helps set the dark and mysterious tone of her gothic tale. Read it before the film comes out in 2014. Again, written by a journalist turned novelist, and gripping from the very first page.
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Follows a handful of very different character over the course of a week, at the end of which they all attend the same dinner party. At the heart of the drama is John Veals, a hedge fund manager with a chillingly dispassionate and clandestine approach to enriching himself, even at the expense of others.
Money by Martin Amis
Narrated by John Self, a successful director of TV commercials who is invited to New York by Fielding Goodney, a film producer, to shoot his first film. Inspired by Amis’s own experience working on the script for the disastrous film Saturn 3 it charts the anti-hero’s slobbishly indulgent self-destruction in viscerally bubonic prose.
And the moral of all these stories is…
Read them and you might detect a trend. All four leading characters lack emotional intelligence – and pay the price!