Last time in this space, we started a series on how to tell stories about your company. Today we’re celebrating someone who told stories about many companies.
Sometimes great works get plucked out of obscurity just because someone famous likes ’em. Usually, the celebrity recommendation turns out to be the most interesting thing about what’s been uncovered. But every now and then, the well-known person does a real favor for the rest of us. This is one of those times. Bill Gates is responsible for the return of John Brooks’s long-out-of-print Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, and making this available again almost makes up for Windows Vista.
Business Adventures is a collection of articles Brooks wrote for The New Yorker from 1959 to 1969. It’s a book about businessmen of the time, avowed squares. Little of the sixties counterculture shows up in these pages except as something far in the distance, but reading these articles roughly half a century later gives you a sense of how exciting working on breakthrough projects has always been, even when they go wrong. Business Adventures reveals again and again how to tell stories about companies: find them at pivotal moments in their existence, talk to the people making the changes there, and look under rocks other people aren’t considering. Many of the companies Brooks reports on are now either long gone or far from their peaks. And the speed of the stock market in the early 1960s that he describes seems quaint. Reading it today is like listening to an audiobook about the history of buggy whips while zooming around in your self-driving Google car. Yet some things never change. The quote that ends his stock market piece — “It is foolish to think that you can withdraw from the Exchange after you have tasted the sweetness of the honey” — captures the eternal excitement traders feel.
Throughout the book, Brooks looks at the expected in unusual ways. In a counterintuitive post mortem on the Edsel, he riffs on car personalities, zooms in on the people, and zooms out on the trends they’re subject to and trying to change. Here’s what he sees on the day the Edsel is released: “On E Day, the Edsel arrived. In Cambridge, a band led a gleaming motorcade of the new cars up Massachusetts Avenue; flying out of Richmond, California, a helicopter hired by one of the most jubilant of the dealers lassoed by Doyle spread a giant Edsel sign above San Francisco Bay; and all over the nation, from the Louisiana bayous to the peak of Mount Rainier to the Maine woods, one needed only a radio or a television set to know that the very air, despite Warnock’s setback on the rockets, was quivering with the presence of the Edsel.” And that’s before he goes on about how the back of the car had eyebrows instead of a tail fin, making it look “cynical and contemptuous.”
Brooks’s tales do come from a different time. His deep dive into the federal income tax refers admiringly to the “skill of the I.R.S.” At their great length, these article are definitely Wallace Shawn-era New Yorker. But on almost every page, there’s something to make you pay attention. Take the book’s top essay, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” great from the title down. Read it and you’ll learn that things we take for granted weren’t always so; I had no idea that, at first, businesses didn’t want to copy paper. They had to be convinced. You might not want to work alongside the wild-eyed investors or litigous executives in this book. But you’ll learn from most of them and you’ll see people — like a man in court wearing an astronaut’s costume — you’d never see in another business book.