Life in the C-suite is certainly demanding. You have a company to run. Reading a novel can seem frivolous, especially when you haven’t read the latest management book your peers are swooning over.
But reading fiction isn’t all escapism; in fact, most great novels aren’t for sissies. They speak to our deepest desires and darkest fears, and reading fiction can help you understand what really goes on in the minds of others: their passions, their insecurities, their dreams and schemes.
Should you read fiction? Of course you should. Here are a few novels CEOs and other C-suiters might find interesting:
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. Set in an advertising agency in Chicago, this is an amazing workplace novel that will ring true to anyone who’s spent time in office culture. It’s written in an unusual first-person plural style; the narrator is “we,” a group voice that represents a sort of collective consciousness of employees. It’s hilarious and sad and true, and has a lot to say about the chasm between what we believe about others and what’s really going on with them.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Anyone who runs a business is susceptible to hubris. Even the most well-intentioned leaders can become egotistical tyrants, and even the most clear-eyed observers can be seduced by power. This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947—the film version won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949—is based at least in part on the rise and fall of Huey Long, the Louisiana governor and U.S. senator who was assassinated in 1935. Long certainly did a lot for his constituents and certainly abused his power, as did the novel’s Willy Stark. Do the ends ever justify the means?
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis’s 1922 novel was so influential that it spawned the common noun “babbitt,” defined as “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman.” That’s a fair, if a bit too simplistic, description of the character of George F. Babbitt, who experiences a bit of a midlife crisis over the course of the novel before resuming his middle-class life. Still, George learns enough during his experiment with bohemian living to announce to his son at the end of the book that, “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life” and to advise him to, “Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!” Good advice. Don’t end up being a babbitt.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Imagine walking into a bar and finding out that you’ve been adjudged the second-least-sexy man in the place. It is a little too close for comfort, this dystopian near-future in which America is in hock to China and everyone in the room’s bank accounts and physical attractiveness are ranked against everyone else’s by digital networks that display all that intel for all to see. It was scary when it was published in 2010, and it seems all the more prescient in 2018.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Yeah, I’m going there. After all this time—it was published in 1851—Moby Dick may still be the great American novel. Along with hundreds of pages of detailed descriptions of what whales look like, inside and out, there are also lessons any leader can learn from Captain Ahab, including “listen to your crew,” “take note of where others have failed so you can avoid a similar fate,” and “don’t be so obsessed with that one white whale that you fail to notice that it’s not the only white whale in the sea.”
What are you reading? What books would you recommend to your peers? We’d love to hear from you.