Monday, August 18, 2008


What is it with businessmen? Every week I read the Sunday Times Business section in case there’s anything relevant to the book trade and invariably end up reading the profiles of top buisnesspeople. Even if I can’t be bothered to read the whole article, I always look at the inset that lists their favourite book, film and piece of music.

Without exception, the taste of our captains of industry is awful. It’s somewhat gauling to discover that someone who earns £700,000 a year thinks that Forest Gump is the greatest film ever made and likes reading Jack Higgins (when they’re not busy listening to Chris Rea). These are people at the top of their profession, so why are their intellectual horizons so limited?

Even the managing director of Waterstone’s, Gerry Johnson, seems to know very little about books. You could argue that he doesn’t have to. He is an experienced retailer and doesn't need to be well-read to identify the priorities of running a national chain of shops. But I still find it strange that Britain’s largest book chain is run by a man who reputedly confused Kerouac’s On the Road with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

What is the answer? I suspect that it lies in the personal qualities that make people succeed in the business world. Today’s top executives are largely 'Type A' personalities, not given to the sort of self-doubt or reflection that draws an individual towards philosophy and the arts. They may be highly intelligent, but somehow their critical faculties rarely compel them to question the meaning of what they’re doing.

I still find it hard to understand how anyone remotely intelligent can enjoy the latest Jeffrey Archer novel, but some people seem to compartmentalise different areas of their life. I have known people with IQs over 150 who would happily go and see the latest Jean-Claude van Damme movie and come out thinking they’d had a good evening.
What's it all about, Alfie?


JRSM said...

I was reading something about successful business people and statistics the other day, basically saying that almost nothing that's achieved in business in terms of big profits/big losses is down to acumen, just luck: you've got millions and millions of executives making decisions, and the odds mean some will look really clever, no matter what happens.

Still doesn't explain the Higgins/Van Damme though.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

'The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play'...?

Star Trek episode: 'For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky'

Like the driver who refuses to drive either a BMW or a Nissan Micra, I refuse to be categorised by my taste in books which is wildly eclectic, though I suppose there is a bias for history and showbiz biogs amidst the classics and contemporary novels. Plus I have a lot of my friends' books on my shelves (as that's compulsory to read onex' friends' novels!)

I wonder if this is why I have got nowhere in business yet?

John Self said...

I think JRSM has it, and connected with that is the fact that successful businesspeople are usually risk-takers. I am not a risk-taker, have almost no career ambition at all, and so will never be a successful businessman. Frankly I'm happier as I am, so that's just as well.

A friend of mine, probably the most intelligent person I know, eschews the sort of (reasonably interesting, I think) novels I read and prefers the likes of Christopher Brookmyre. He defends this on the basis that he uses his brain all day and doesn't want to read 'difficult' books for leisure. I don't get this at all, since I get so bored by what we shall for the sake of argument call 'rubbish books' that I feel I'm wasting my time on them.

JRSM said...

That's such an odd argument (your friend's, John, not yours!). I use my brain all day too (admittedly not on the things I'd prefer); it's using it on a good book that makes up for the rest of it.

And even if he doesn't want to read "difficult" books, there are so many intelligent, yet easy to read, books out there.