You can tell a lot about people from the books they read. That's one reason some bohemians hang around bookstore cafes, broadcasting their unique interests to the other patrons. At the other extreme, booksellers in Japan typically add a paper wrapper to new book purchases, essentially concealing individual reading tastes from fellow commuters.
Aggregate sales figures also tell important stories. For instance, if you want insight into the present state of the American psyche, just take a look at the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. The top book: Bush At War, by Bob Woodward.
National best-seller lists once comprised the bulk of publication sales data available to the public. But now, the growing popularity of buying books over the Internet reveals information at a granularity that would have been unthinkable a mere generation ago. For example, take the "Purchase Circles" section at online retailer Amazon.com. By cross-referencing its sales records with the e-mail addresses of its customers, Amazon generates lists of books that are "uniquely popular" within specific organizations. As a result, each Purchase Circle provides detailed insights into what people from certain cities, towns, schools and companies purchase above and beyond anyone else.
So, with only a slight voyeuristic twinge, I combed Amazon's list in order to peek into the soul of the average banker. Want to know what bankers read with more frequency than the general populace?
Anything about themselves, to start. Book buyers with a J.P. Morgan address racked up sales of Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse, and The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance, by Ron Chernow.
Even unflattering portraits of greed and of the banality of evil make the reading lists. The pick at Lehman Brothers: Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of the House of Lehman, by Ken Auletta. The top book for all banks and credit unions combined was The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War Against the Jews: The Expropriation of Jewish-Owned Property, by Harold James. This work was also ranked number one in the Deutsche Bank circle, which I take as a heartening indicator of self-reflection on ethics, values and critical thinking in business.
Of course, not all bankers have such weighty issues on their minds. Over at State Street in Boston, the top read is more about local interest with Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and A Devil's Deal, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. This is the story of the Bulger brothers, one a former elected official and current president of the University of Massachusetts, and the other a fugitive from justice on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list.
Other institutions seem to stress books that aim at improving business practices. Bank One employees, for example, are reading Double Your Profits in 6 Months or Less, Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew the Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion, and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by James Collins and Jerry Porras.
A more recent work by Collins, Good to Great, documents several of the observed dynamics of successful companies. Among them is the Hedgehog Concept, which suggests that great companies tend to operate around a single organizing principle. The characterization of hedgehogs stems from a translated fragment of the early Greek poet Archilochus. The epigram suggests that foxes know many tricks yet still get caught, whereas hedgehogs know one trick but it always works. Unless, as has been pointed out by an astute observer of nature, the fox rolls the balled-up hedgehog into a body of water to drown.
Befitting its status as a diversified financial institution, Citicorp's reading list includes a book for foxes, Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy, by Philip Evans and Thomas Wurster; and one for hedgehogs, Information Security Management Handbook, Volume I.
But some institutions may want to think about using a Japanese-style bookseller in the future. Take a look at the top three books at Wells Fargo: Technical Presentation Skills, Dead Bank Walking: One Gutsy Bank's Struggle for Survival and the Merger That Changed Banking Forever, and Love 'Em Or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay. Sounds like an impending merger to me.
If I'm right, score one for the foxes.
Read any good books lately? How about insightful 10-Ks?
Ivan Schneider, BS&T senior editor, works out of CMP Media's offices in Waltham, Mass.
Write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.