The Top-Drawer Business Books of 2014

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun




You've probably already seen a few lists of the top business books of the year. This is another one, but with a spin: The tongue-in-cheek title describes books that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well-written, practical, thought-provoking, and innovative. 

As Robert Weider said:

Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.

These books should be kept within easy reach for repeated reference.The top-drawer list has always been less than traditional (or duplicative), as too many of the other best business book lists are narrow in both definition and focus.

That is why this list includes books not categorized as “business.”There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated:

Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.

This list is built on that premise. We avoid books promising four-hour work weeks because they are fables, how-to books that are vacuous and dangerous, and the content of so-called inspirational works that are trite, ineffectual, and soon tossed out when met with the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

Life is too short to drink cheap scotch and read books that are not "top-drawer."

Here are nine books you need to order immediately, in no particular order:

Business Strategy: Managing Uncertainty, Opportunity, and Enterprise

By J.C. Spender

It is difficult to find a book that splendidly marries theory and practical application. Spender’s attempt falls a bit short and leans more towards theory, but that is just fine as long as the reader can apply it to their own situation. The author challenges us to embrace uncertainties and create systems and processes to leverage them. This is how innovation truly comes about. As a bonus, Spender showcases the leading strategy tools employed by consultants and academics.

the-innovatorsThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

By Walter Isaacson

Isaacson’s last effort was a biography of Steve Jobs. His latest is a meaty and deeply satisfying 560-page history. It takes us back to Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine to Alan Turing and the codebreakers of Bletchley Park and to Tim Berners-Lee and the birth of the World Wide Web. Throughout, he reveals the talents that allowed inventors and entrepreneurs to disrupt technology and society. Isaacson explores why some succeed and some fail. There is an engaging thread throughout the historical narrative that is highly relevant to today.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't

By Simon Sinek

You may have read Sinek’s first book, Start with Why. If not, you probably saw his TEDTalk of the same name. It is the second most popular video of all time on TED. The author’s goal is to create happier and healthier organizations. This results when there is authenticity built upon trust and cooperation. Organizations where trust and cooperation thrive vastly outperform their competition, and employees love working there. All of this requires leaders who, “in hard times, would sooner sacrifice their numbers to protect their people, rather than sacrifice people to protect their numbers.” That may be difficult for most leaders to apply.

race-undergroundThe Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway

By Doug Most

Welcome to a story of innovation, drive, power, and competition. In the late 19th century, Boston and New York were both growing exponentially. Gridlock, safety, and productivity forced both cities to burrow underground. It became a race, and this makes the book fast and fascinating. Real-life characters include "Boss" Tweed, Thomas Edison, and the nameless, faceless “sandhogs” who dug and blasted into the earth’s crust, risking their lives every day. It is riveting history rife with business lessons.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

By Greg McKeown

The title of this book is a bit misleading. At first glance, it appears to challenge our materialistic world. Yet, it is even more provocative. It asks us to take charge of our lives, reclaim the choices we make, and apply the saved energy and time for more noble pursuits. It bills itself as whole new way of doing things, but the principles already exist and can be found in mindfulness and meditation. What McKeown had done is package it for the business world. If it seems a little too “out there” for you, then just imagine what it would be like to have 15% more time for whatever you wanted.


By Sophia Amoruso

The title, the writing style, the cover, and the content all add up to “attitude.” The author kicks off the book with this: “I have three pieces of advice I want you to remember: Don’t ever grow up. Don’t become a bore. Don’t let The Man get to you. OK? Cool. Then let’s do this.” If you don’t know who she is, Amoruso started out selling vintage clothes on eBay. Eight years later, she is the founder, CEO, and creative director of Nasty Gal, a $100 million online fashion retailer with more than 350 employees. While rebellious and brash, the author does respect the rules. What she advocates is following some but knowing which ones to break.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson

Johnson is prolific. He has penned the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide OpenEmergence, and Interface Culture. In this illustrated history, he explores the history of innovation. He brings to life the origins of refrigeration, clocks, eyeglass lenses, and others. He also regales with stories of accidental genius and brilliant mistakes. The book is now a six-part television series on PBS.

tinkeringThe Art of Tinkering

By Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich

This fun and highly visual book follows more than 150 makers as they share the stories behind their beautiful and bold work. From fused fashions to wire works to animatronic creatures to electronic popables, these amazing tinkerers exemplify curiosity, creativity, invention, collaboration, and resilience. This book will probably not appear in any other ranking of business books -- but it should.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

By Steven Pinker

Pinker’s book asks: Why is so much writing so bad? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing? Why should any of us care? The book is not a lofty vent but rather a collection of insights covering clear, coherent, and stylish prose. Pinker shows how writing depends on imagination, empathy, coherence, grammatical know-how, and an ability to savor and reverse engineer the good work of others. It is filled with good and bad examples of writing -- both of which entertain. As John Cheever opined, “A page of good prose remains invincible.”


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