What are business leaders reading? Management books, one would hope. Success stories of other enterprises. How-to books. And that’s about it. As documented by Giovanni Solimine in L’Italia che legge, a book published by Laterza in 2010 but still relevant today, 38% of all business owners, managers and freelance professionals spend only brief amounts of time reading only things strictly related to their professions – things they find useful, in other words – but very few novels and not much non-fiction in fields like current events, history, philosophy, or even economics. The widespread opinion in the world of business is that there are better things to be doing than reading, unless it’s something “technical” or otherwise “useful”. That’s a shame, both for them and for their businesses.
“Understanding people, their defects and their passions is absolutely essential in business, and literature is one of the best ways we have of doing that,” said Ivan Lo Bello, vice-president of education for Confindustria and a businessman who profoundly revolutionised the conduct of Sicilian industrialists, revitalising a commitment to lawfulness and to combatting organised crime. Lo Bello spoke of this to Filippo Astone in the Sunday cultural insert to Il Sole24Ore – something that everyone in business would do well to read – where he reiterated the crucial importance of sound foundations in culture and the responsibility of people in business to play an active role in their own lives. He said, “Great literature is indispensable for everyone, not just in business, because it is beautiful, and that beauty gives meaning and depth to our lives. It helps us to understand that our lives are what we make of them, that there is always a way to take control.”
In the same cultural insert to Il Sole24Ore, Oscar Farinetti also said, “The ability to tell stories to promote and sell the products of our territory comes from the relationship we have with good books.”
And Severino Salvemini, professor of business organisation at Bocconi and leading expert in the relationship between culture and enterprise, said, “Businesspeople who deal with today’s products and markets must necessarily be in tune with contemporary language and so must read a great deal, including good literature.”
But read what? Ideas are endless. The Latin classics to ponder the essence of leadership, for example, starting with Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (The Gallic War) before moving on to lessons of Cicero, Seneca and Tacitus on ethics, politics and responsibility. Or the great works of theatre: nothing is better than Shakespeare’s King Lear for a study on greed, deception and the quest for power, even among family, or on placing your trust in the wrong people, or In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam to find the spark of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in the darkest corners of an uncommon – even heretical – mind. Or the great Italian literature of Manzoni and Leopardi. The Council of Egypt by Leonardo Sciascia on deception and truth. The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the pride of identity, and about death and regret. Bouvard et Pécuchet, by Flaubert, for an awareness of the magnitude of stupidity in our daily lives (or along those same lines: Allegro ma non troppo, by Carlo M. Cipolla). The Wrench, by Primo Levi, about industrial pride, and so on and so forth on up to The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe or The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, a best seller that shows us that which lies in the depths of our hearts in these modern times.
And this list goes on and on. Any reader or, better, any manager who is lucky enough (both for his own sake and that of his enterprise) to be a real bookworm can feel free to add to it, but let’s conclude here with one more recommendation: The Novel Cure – An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin (Canongate Books). Every crisis has a book that shows the way out. Or better, nearly every crisis, with the exception with that of not reading, which is more than just a crisis; it’s a terrible choice for poverty.