How Bill Gates resurrected his favorite business book of all time

Good reading for a weekend in Sun Valley.
Good reading for a weekend in Sun Valley.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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In 1991, shortly after they first met, Warren Buffett passed along John Brooks’ Business Adventures to Bill Gates.

“Oh I knew he’d like it. I mean that was written for him, it was written for me too,” Buffett says in a video introducing Gates’ review of the book.

It remains the best business book Bill Gates has ever read, despite being nearly half a century old, and being out of print until Gates’ intervention. It’s now available as an e-book, will be reprinted and available physically in September. Gates’ favorite chapter is available for download at his site.

The book came to mind again when Gates was discussing favorite books with Andy Cook, a general manager at Gates’ private office and think tank and the team that helps run his GatesNotes website, where he frequently posts about his voluminous reading. It came up that the he rarely discussed business books, and Gates immediately brought up Business Adventures.

Past books he’s featured have seen significant uptick in sales. But this book was out of print, meaning anyone looking for the book would have faced the prospect of tracking down an older hard copy. Figuring out who even had the rights was tough. It had been with the now-defunct publisher Weybright and Talley, then rights transferred to a publisher in England at some point. The New Yorker had the original columns, but it was hard to figure out who had the book rights.

So Cook got in touch with Alex Brooks, the author’s son.

“I called Alex, and said this is whacky but Bill really likes your Dad’s book,” Cook said. “He was obviously a little shocked by that phone call but extremely flattered and interested.”

“I was very pleased to learn Bill Gates was a fan of my father’s book,” Alex Brooks said, “that’s kind of great news so we called my father’s agent, and asked them if we could get an e-book ready in a hurry. They got in touch with the publisher Open Road, and Open Road seemed to think it was a good opportunity and jumped right in.”

Some of Brooks’ other works, the Wall Street classics Once in Goldconda and The Go-Go Years were (and are) still in print, but for one reason or another, Business Adventures tailed off.

“It got reprinted a few times during the 70s and I guess after that people thought that it was old news because it was describing stories that had happened in the 60s and even back into the 50s,” Alex Brooks said. “I think that people saw it as an ephemeral thing, as a good piece of journalism.”

It wasn’t until later, he says, that people realized that these were just great stories with historic, entertainment, and business value. Their age really didn’t matter.

Gates and Buffett agree. It’s a fascinating and useful book in its own right, and likely to see an audience now that it hasn’t in some years.

“He conceived them in the way a fiction writer conceives a short story, there’s a conflict of some kind that comes to a head and gets resolved, it’s satisfying in a way that reading a good short story is,” Alex Brooks said.

Beyond being an entertaining read, it offers some pretty essential business lessons.

Gates’ review highlights the chapter ”Xerox, Xerox, Xerox, Xerox,” which tells the early story of how Xerox manage to completely disrupt the world of copying in the first place. It’s a reminder of how the creativity and risk taking of a few people can make a company, and how easily people forget that.

Buffett mentions ”The Impacted Philosophers,” an epic tale of the trials of corporate communication through the story of General Electric’s involvement in an electricity price-fixing scandal. It’s a classic examination of how men who appear to mean well can do dubious things.

A description within is vintage Brooks:

…as the testimony shows, the clear waters of moral responsibility at G.E. became hopelessly muddied by a struggle to communicate–a struggle so confused that in some cases, it would appear, if one of the big bosses at G.E. had ordered a subordinate to break the law, the message would somehow have been garbled in its reception, and if the subordinate had informed the boss that he was holding conspiratorial meetings with competitors, the boss might well have been under the impression that the subordinate was gossiping idly about lawn parties or pinhole sessions.

Specifically, it would appear that a subordinate who received a direct oral order form his boss had to figure out whether it meant what it seemed to or the exact opposite, while the boss, in conversing with a subordinate, had to figure out whether he should take what the man told him at face value or should attempt to translate it out of a secret code to which he was by no means sure he had the key.

Alex Brooks’ favorite is a bit different– it’s his father’s excellent treatment of the federal income tax, breaking down the historical oddities of its conception, implementation, and effects. It’s wonky explanatory journalism before anyone thought to call it that.

“I think he was one of the first to consider business journalism as a sort of topic for just general popular readership,” Alex Brooks says. “I think mostly before he came along business journalism was written for businessmen. The idea of telling business stories as just kind of entertaining pieces of reading was a real innovation.”

Gates argues that the real appeal of Brooks’ books is that they stand as stories, not just as business lessons. He’s given the book a push which might help it make its way back into the business book canon more permanently.