It’s a common reaction. When I explain to people that I work for a bookstore that specializes in business books, most people either furrow their brows or wrinkle their noses. Sometimes this reaction is caused by confusion as bookstores, to most people, are brick and mortar locations that display New York Times best selling fiction, spin racks of greeting cards, and children’s pictures books. When that happens, I try to explain, in a nutshell, the origin of our company: we are what is left of the Harry W. Schwartz bookshops, an independent chain of bookstores in Milwaukee that regretfully closed their doors last year. Then I briefly tackle the evolution of our branch of the company: we began selling books mainly to corporate libraries, but that service grew to include speaking events and corporate training programs, then blossomed further into all the work we do online connecting with lovers of business books and connoisseurs of great ideas.
That is the other cause of the consternation. Most people I talk with outside of work aren’t business book lovers. In fact, for many people, the only business book they remember hearing about is Who Moved My Cheese, and regardless of how you feel about that particular book, most people don’t have any clue just how broad and deep the business book genre is. I’ve had a plain-speaking tennis league teammate of mine ask, after an explanation of what I do for a living: “So…who reads that stuff?” And just last night, another attempt to explain my job was interrupted with: “Well…I don’t think there really are any business books out there worth reading.”
Now, I don’t like to turn a night at the bar into a lecture on the value of business books, but when confronted with a face that is scrunched up in skepticism or confusion or simple disbelief that there can be anything interesting or even enchanting about the business book category, I try to quickly explain that while you may sit next to someone on an airplane or exercise bike who is reading something practical (though possible unappealing to you) like Getting Things Done, there really is something for everyone in a genre of books that stretches from investigative non-fiction, to novel, to screenplay, to practical advice, inspiring biography.
I find myself recommending books like Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success to my tennis teammates; The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work to my graduate school friends; Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die to my husband, a high school teacher.
This defense of the business book genre and all the sub-genres within echoes the current–and continual–debate about the true value of literary fiction, the undervaluing of genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi, the misnomer that all fiction by women read by women qualifies as “chick-lit.” The fervor over the unrestrained praise of Jonathon Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (read more here, here, here, here, and here) is just the most recent example.
For whatever reason, elitism is alive and well when it comes to one’s reading preferences. (I’m going to ignore here the current, very elitist, discussions about how reading or publishing a paper book is or is not superior to using an e-reader. I think we’ve all had a lot of that this week.) Some of this is stubbornness. We put blinders on when it comes to crossing genres. I know that I am loathe to listen to someone expound on the high-quality of science-fiction as I’m not one to be drawn into fictional and fantastical worlds, but at the same time, despite my literature degree, I’m a fan of English police procedurals and a variety of other crime and detective novels. I think I’m an able enough critic to know whether I like a book strictly based on entertainment value versus some truly good writing, but regardless, I’ll defend my preferred genre. Some of it is ignorance. Because the business book genre was indeed limited to technical titles or fables about moved cheese for quite a long time, it is hard to spread the word and have people take you seriously that the genre has simply exploded over the course of the past decade.
And so it is that I find myself often defending the business book genre. Whether you have an interest in game theory, a fascination with the sharks on Wall Street and Washington, a desire to create a more balanced work environment for your employees, a need for a retirement plan, a fear of change, or you want to read a great story reminiscent of Mad Men, you can find (with our help if you don’t know where to start) a quality book with depth and nuance that strives to be something more than a series of action steps. People in the United States spend a predominant portion of their lives working, and I am a passionate believer that the business book genre contributes to better work environments, improved personal happiness, and increasingly keener intellects.