We’ve talked before here about the point that most fiction seems to be about people who are lawyers, policemen, criminals, soldiers, spies, students, politicians, and noble but struggling writers. But there are indeed some works of fiction, and some vivid personal memoirs, in which business plays a central role without being portrayed simplistically or as stereotypically evil. Here are some that I like…please add your own favorites in the comments. (I posted this at Ricochet, in slightly different form, about a week ago)
The Current War, a recent movie about the late-1800s power struggle to determine which technology…AC or DC…will dominate America’s electrical distribution system. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla are the key characters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, and Nicholas Hoult respectively. My review is here.
The Big Short, a 2015 film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis’s book. A hedge fund manager concludes that the subprime-loan market is not sustainable, and makes a billion-dollar bet against the relevant mortgage-backed securities. Based on real events. I thought it was very well done.
God is an Englishman, R F Delderfield. Following his return to England from the Crimean War, Adam Swann identifies a business opportunity: although railroads are being built throughout the country, there will always be sources and destinations of freight which are not on the tracks. Hence, the potential for a nationwide gap-filling road haulage business based on the systematic use of horse-drawn wagons. (This is the first book of a three-book series called the Swann Family Saga.) Reviewed here.
Oil for the Lamps of China, Alice Tisdale Hobart. This 1933 novel is about a young American working as a sales rep in China, focused on selling oil for his employer (unnamed, but clearly based on Standard Oil) and increasing volumes by promoting the kerosene lamp as a better alternative to traditional lighting methods. The book was the basis for a 1935 movie of the same name…the film has its moments, but overall is not worthy of the book.
Father, Son, and Company, by Thomas Watson Jr. This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr (the long-time CEO of IBM), his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. I reviewed it here.
A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. The central character of this 1988 novel is Charlie Croker, an Atlanta real-estate developer who has gotten himself into way too much debt. Other characters include Charlie’s current and former wives, the Black mayor of Atlanta, the bankers who must deal with the debt problem, and a warehouse worker at one of the Croker enterprises. The book also casts a not-very-complimentary light on the Atlanta society/arts scene.
Trial by Fire, Stephen Buck. The adventures of a Honeywell field engineer in the early days of process-control computing. The book’s title reflects the point that the industrial processes being controlled frequently involved combustion, sometimes in scary circumstances. Much of the author’s work took place outside the US, in countries ranging from Poland to Brazil.
Herman the German, Gerhard Neumann. This is the autobiography of a man who was born to a Jewish family in Germany, apprenticed as an auto mechanic, attended engineering school, moved to China in 1938, was interned by the British as an enemy alien in 1939, transferred to the American forces, joined Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, repaired the first Japanese Zero fighter to be captured in potentially-flyable condition, became a U.S. citizen by special act of Congress, and went on to run GE’s entire jet engine business, which he played a major role in creating. (The preceding may be the longest single sentence I’ve ever written in a blog post.) I reviewed here.
Nice Work, David Lodge. What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory? This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain. It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox. Vic is not thrilled when his boss (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request. Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked.
I reviewed the book here.
No Highway, Neville Shute. A scientist determines that a new airplane model will suffer metal fatigue much earlier than had been thought, but is unable to convince his management. The author was himself an aircraft designer and co-founder of an aircraft company. The book was turned into a 1951 movie, No Highway in the Sky. (Just a few years later, the de Havilland Comet–the first commercial jetliner–would suffer two catastrophic crashes due to metal fatigue.)
Titan American Built, a documentary series about American manufacturing. “The stakes are high, the metals are hard, and failure is not an option,” as this review notes. Producer Titan Gilroy, a former boxer, is a strong advocate of American manufacturing and has an academy focused on bringing CNC skills to a wider range of people.
North and South, an 1854 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is not about the American Civil War, but about the north and south of England at the time of the industrial revolution. A clergyman must abandon his career and leave his pleasant parsonage for reasons of conscience, and moves to an industrial city in the north. His daughter meets a millowner, who she initially dislikes, but a mutual attraction soon develops.
A very good TV series based on the novel is available on Netflix.
CEO, Sandra Kurtzig. The author built a very small computer-services business into one of the first large independent application software companies, focused on manufacturing applications and attaining an annual revenue of $400MM. Much more recently, she formed a new cloud-based manufacturing applications company, Kenandy.
The Dwelling Place of Light, Winston Churchill. This strange but interesting 1917 novel (by the other Churchill, the once-well-known American writer) is about a New England town, a textile mill and its manager, and the girl–daughter of an old family whose circumstances have declined–who becomes his secretary. Here’s a review from the novel’s initial publication.