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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Best Business Books: Fiction

The would-be trophy brides are described in similar fashion, with “statuesque” figures and “marvelous breasts,” “goddesses” with “tanned bare arms and shoulders” and “radiant smiles,” forever looking “stunning” and “dazzling.” Fortunately, unlike the aforementioned wood, they actually do things. Unfortunately, mostly what they do is turn into ranting idiots, heartless grifters, or comical sex fiends at the drop of a hat. But again, no matter. The supporting cast — kids, servants, employees — is just plausible enough. Steve is smart and has a heart, ditto Jessie, and that’s enough of a story line to keep things moving. You don’t really get anywhere, but it’s not an unpleasant ride.

The Roman Way
Although not technically a work of fiction, my final selection accomplishes the satirical goal best of all — true insight through humor. Stanley Bing, the pen name of Fortune humor columnist and CBS PR executive Gil Schwartz, has carved out a nice niche for himself as a satirist of executive life. I used to read his column regularly but eventually tired of it — finding original ways to spoof executive life 26 times a year, year after year, is a tall order for anyone — and I’d almost forgotten how good a writer he is. In Rome, Inc., Mr. Bing tackles an improbable idea: casting the history of the Roman empire as a management parable, with the tongue-half-in-cheek thesis that Rome was the first great multinational and had to wrestle with organizational challenges no different from what corporations face today.

The most explicit analogies between Rome and the modern corporation, though meant as jokes, are the least interesting and least amusing aspects of Rome, Inc. Mark Antony is to Octavian as Bill Gates is to Steve Jobs. Get it? Me neither, and I read the book. But to focus on this is to miss Mr. Bing’s considerable achievement: He succeeds in painting a fairly coherent picture of how Rome worked and why, with a wry and witty use of corporate jargon and contemporary colloquialism that is a funny and refreshing antidote to the historian-speak that we usually have to navigate in reading about the ancient world. Indeed, it turns out that looking at Rome from a modern management standpoint is actually fairly enlightening, and in Mr. Bing’s able hands it’s also very entertaining.

Consider this description of the strategy behind Hannibal’s legendary invasion:

Hannibal Barca was one of the great out-of-the-box thinkers and strategic planners, and he didn’t give up until he lost the support of his own senior management — and, of course, a lot of lives along the way. Hannibal’s idea was to tie up Rome in Africa and then, with the help of the many little mom-and-pop operations that hated Rome in the south of France and northern Italy, invade the boot itself, and set up shop right on Rome’s doorstep, frightening the toga boys and eventually piercing the heart of the great corporation in its own hometown. How to get there? By the hardest way possible — over the Alps. In winter. Just exactly what any sane manager would never think of doing. And while we’re at it, let’s bring something that no Roman, no Italian has ever seen before: elephants. Big, scary, weird elephants. That ought to rock their world, huh?

As a potted history, that’s pretty good.

Mr. Bing makes a compelling, if ultimately obvious, argument that the Roman Empire was built on very clever management techniques, and that it survived as long as it did because middle management — the soldiers and merchants — remained committed despite the decadence of the senior executives. He’s perceptive and hilarious in his assessments of Caesar, Augustus, Antony, and the other great figures, and he’s merciless (and also hilarious) in his descriptions of the preposterously irresponsible and self-indulgent emperors who followed Caesar, such as Caligula and Nero. By the book’s end, the central joke starts to wear thin, but the sketches still work. Mr. Bing has obviously done his homework.

 
 
 
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