Mine older books for insight

Sep 29, 2014 | Better Writing

Books are where you can dig down to find details about business facts and stories and timelines. More and more, we’re buying our business books online and in electronic form. That has several advantages.

What’s good about ebooks

Ebooks are portable. Several hundred books are on my Kindle, which is the size and weight of a single trade paperback. It’s easy to carry and I can have my books with me wherever I am.

Ebooks are searchable. I can easily search all my books for a particular word or phrase. That’s invaluable if you’re trying to source a quote.

That’s great and it may be enough for you. But if you really want to dig down to bedrock, you should become an amateur collector of older business books.

Lots of books are digitized, but …

Recent books are digitized. But many business books published before 1975 are not. They may be “forgotten,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value.

The interesting case of Business Adventures

John Brooks was a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine who wrote wonderful business articles. In 1969, several of his articles were collected in a book titled Business Adventures. They include superbly written contemporary accounts of scandals and the Edsel and the early days of Xerox.

The book went out of print. The publisher went out of business. John Brooks died in 1993. And that might have been that except for Bill Gates.

It turned out that Business Adventures was Bill Gates’ favorite business book. With a nudge from Gates, the book was resurrected in the summer of 2014. At one point, it was number three on Amazon. “OK,” you may be thinking, “so what?”

Older books give you perspective

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.” Older business stories help you spot the rhymes.

Older books enrich your understanding

The material in older business books can add richness to your understanding. Brooks’ stories of the Edsel and Xerox do that superbly. So does the story of Post-Its development that you can find in a 1986 book titled Breakthroughs! Of course, first you have to find the book.

What kind of books to look for

Look for books that include stories or analysis. They’re easier to read than the standard fare business books of any age.

How to find those books

Listen for the books that people who’ve been in business longer than you recommend. Check them out to see if they have value for you.

Browse used book stores. There are used book sites online, but I find them harder to use and less likely to have treasure than physical bookstores that specialize in used books.

When you find a book or author or series you like, go online to see if there are similar books. Amazon is great for this because of the reviews, collaborative filtering, and ease of search.