Dylan Schleicher takes a look inside the best books in Narrative & Biography, the most quintessentially human-focused category in a year in which all books seemed more heavily focused on our shared humanity.
If there is one overriding theme across all 40 books we picked as the best this year has had to offer, it is the centering of human beings in business and economics. The books explore our inner lives, worldly needs, motivations and desires, and the real human costs and benefits of economic activity. The Narrative & Biography category is, by its nature, squarely focused there—on individuals, yes, but also on the way we organize ourselves economically and what that does to our relationships with each other and the environments (physical, social, and political) around us. The five we believe to be the best in the category this year range from larger histories that examine the foundations of our ongoing and still imperfect experiment in self-government and the ways economics has interacted with it, to narratives of modern organizations that double as biographies of the individuals who have led and shaped them.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones & The New York Times Magazine, One World
How old were you when you realized the significance of the year 1619? I was 40. It was last year, when the 1619 Project was launched in The New York Times Magazine to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first sale of enslaved Africans in America. That I learned it so late is embarrassing to me on a personal level, but I know I'm not alone in this educational delay, and I appreciate the many iterations of the project that make the information more accessible to all–in the Sunday newspaper, in the audio series by The Daily, in lesson plans, and now in a book. All help us understand that slavery was not only the original sin of our country, but a foundational element of our economic and political life with tentacles that reach into and affect our public and private lives today. For instance, Matthew Desmond's chapter “Capitalism” traces the roots of America's lack of robust worker protections (among the lowest of any nation in the OECD) to the “fields of Georgia and Alabama, to the cotton houses and auction blocks” and the easy tax-avoidance of major corporations today to compromises made around slavery during the constitutional convention. But 1776 and 1619 need not be competing narratives. To be fully met, we must realize that the promises made in 1776 were made in a compromised state, one in which the property rights of those who enslaved people as property routinely won out over the human rights of those enslaved. But they are promises that we can and should keep, even belatedly, for all. To understand the present moment, we must understand the past. We must remember and rectify historical wrongs. For that reason, Hannah-Jones's final chapter on economic justice should be required reading for anyone who hopes to hold public office in our country. And despite the manufactured outrage over critical race theory in schools around the country, I'll make sure there is a copy of The 1619 Project on our shelves for my own children to read as soon as they're old enough to read it. As Americans, I want them to know the significance of what happened here 400 years ago—and all that has happened since—before they turn 40.
Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States by Jonathan Levy, Random House
Unless you're an academic, which I am not, Ages of American Capitalism might intimidate you as it did me at first. You'll have to make your way through theses on the definition of capital and capitalism, the power and rationality (or lack thereof) of the profit motive, and the dual nature of liquidity—the inducement to invest versus the propensity to hoard capital—all before you leave the introduction. But that brief education on what Levy is proposing comes in handy for understanding the economic history that follows. But it is a history that is incomplete without understanding the political and social context that it exists within, and:
The critical role of putatively noneconomic issues in one of the principal reasons there is a need for a history of capitalism, and why the pages to come will consist not only of charts and statistics, but of political speeches and the diary entries of housewives, poems, and paintings.
Levy tells that story in four epochs. Perhaps in part because of the history detailed in The 1619 Project, but also because “American capitalism is an especially forward-looking economic system” powered by invested capital, we suffer more than most countries from a “pronounced historical amnesia.” Because of this, we succumb to the belief that the current form of our economy is the only form of capitalism available. Levy's four epochs tell otherwise, showing how profoundly we have altered course in the past and holding out hope that we can do so again.
Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire by Brad Stone, Simon & Schuster
Brad Stone had already written the definitive account of Amazon in The Everything Store. But that was in 2013, and Amazon has been up to quite a lot since then, mushrooming in market capitalization from “nearly $120 billion at the end of 2012” to over one and a half trillion dollars since, and from 150,000 employees to almost one and a half million. As Stone writes:
I was writing about the Kindle company, but this was now the Alexa company. Also, the cloud company. And a Hollywood studio. And a video game maker, robotics manufacturer, grocery store owner—and on and on.
It went from being omnipresent in the economy to nearly omnipotent over it. And it's not slowing down. Amazon had its best year ever during the pandemic, and Jeff Bezos's personal wealth increased more than 70 percent during that time. The question Stone ultimately poses is if the world is better off with Amazon in it. We are left to draw our own conclusions, and Stone offers an in-depth and even-handed account of the company from which we can do so—a monumental achievement considering the current size and scope of its operations. Whatever your conclusion, and despite Bezos's own predication that “one day Amazon will fail” because large companies' “lifespans tend to be thirty-plus years, not a hundred-plus years,” it is currently entwined in our overall economy and has become an intimate part of our lives, and there is a lot we can learn from the story of how the company reached this point.
Collision Course: Carlos Ghosn and the Culture Wars That Upended an Auto Empire by Hans Greimel & William Sposato, Harvard Business Review Press
One place companies do last longer than thirty-plus years is in Japan. As the authors of Collision Course note, “the world's four oldest corporations all come from Japan.” It used to have the top five, but the oldest among them, a construction group in Osaka that was founded in the year 578, went out of business in 2006—making the current record holder a hotel near Tokyo that has been in business since 705 (and no, those dates 578 and 705 are not typos). It is a culture of deep and longstanding connections between companies, a system that Carlos Ghosn upset as he built an even larger connection between Renault in France and Nissan in Japan. And yes, drama did ensue. The tale of Carlos Ghosn's dramatic escape from Japanese authorities—and the almost guaranteed to-be-successful prosecution against him—seems like the stuff of fiction. That gives Hans Greimel and William Sposato's tale the feel of a Hollywood thriller at times, and I'm sure one could be made from their account, but it is much more than that. It is a book that captures the intricacies and difficulties of the automotive industry, as well as those that exist in attempting a cross-cultural corporate partnership the likes of which Ghosn headed in the Renault–Nissan Alliance, where he eventually rose to become CEO of both companies. It also does a great job explaining traditional Japanese business culture, its historical background and connections, and just how much Ghosn disturbed those traditions in his effort to turn Nissan around. Maybe that was why he was eventually forced to flee Japan and become an international fugitive from the law. Maybe he really committed the fraud that led to the charges against him. Either way, the spectacle of one of the world's most famous CEOs being packed into an oversized audio equipment box to flee the country, and the authors' examination of the Japanese justice system he escaped, is interesting enough to warrant a reading of the book. But the combined understanding the authors bring to the background of the story, in their reporting on the car business and international affairs, adds even more to our understanding of the world.
Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli, Abrams Press
There is not any book I personally enjoyed reading more this year than Lisa Napoli's narrative of the founding of NPR and the four women who shaped the news radio network at its inception. Women like Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells had made some of the most significant contributions to journalism in American history before them, but the news business in general, and the realm of broadcast journalism in particular remained mostly unwelcoming to women. That began to change when Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts ended up at a decidedly new kind of news outlet and became some of its biggest stars. The book acts as an individual biography of each of these founding mothers, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the network's founding, a recounting of NPR's early days. Napoli doesn';t pull any punches in detailing how and when NPR has failed to do right by them—and equal opportunity more broadly—but at a time when we need to think about new ways to do things, the story of the organization coming to life is nearly as inspiring as that of the individuals who became its biggest stars, and great friends in the process. Cokie Roberts became the biggest star of all of them, but even she insisted on keeping her gig at NPR when she was offered a half-million dollars by ABC because “You can't do what you do on NPR anywhere else.” The media landscape has changed as dramatically as any over the past 50 years, but that remains true to a large extent. The role Stamberg, Wertheimer, Totenberg, and Roberts have played in the history of NPR, and in changing the face of news reporting and commentary, has indeed been extraordinary, as is Lisa Napoli's account of it.