December 2023 | 

Faculty Recommendations: Seven Books to Read Now

Faculty Recommendations: Seven Books to Read Now

Asking Wharton professors for reading recommendations is always enlightening. The following range of science, biography, and fiction titles illustrates how they often find business — and life — lessons in unexpected places.

Patti Williams, vice dean of Wharton Executive Education, is reading The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig (Simon & Schuster, 2021). “I study emotions,” she says, “and Koenig defines new words for ones that we all feel but don’t currently have the words to express.” Here are a few of her favorites:

  • Midding n. the tranquil pleasure of being near a gathering but not quite in it — hovering on the perimeter of a campfire, talking quietly outside a party, resting your eyes in the back seat of a car listening to friends chat up front — feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay, with all the thrill of being there without the burden of having to be.
  • Hubilance n. the quiet poignance of your own responsibility for someone, with a mix of pride and fear and love and humility — feeling a baby fall asleep on your chest or driving at night surrounded by loved ones fast asleep, who trust you implicitly with their lives — a responsibility that wasn’t talked about or assigned to you, it was assumed to be yours without question.
  • Aftergloom n. the pang of loneliness you feel the day after an intensely social event, as the glow of voices and laughter fades into quiet. Williams, academic director of the  Executive Development Program says aftergloom is likely “experienced by some of our Executive Education participants after they leave a program.”

Gad Allon, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, recommends Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson (Custom House, 2021). “The book explores the science of endurance, elucidating how mental and physical limits interact. It delves into factors influencing endurance, showcasing real-world examples alongside scientific studies,” Allon says. The academic director of Scaling Business for Profitable  Growth says, “It offers interesting insights into pushing boundaries and overcoming perceived limitations. The narrative on how individuals and teams transcend their limits provides an interesting context for discussions on scaling challenges and solutions in operational settings.”

Wharton Deputy Dean Nancy Rothbard is reading Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Co., 2023). She says, “It’s a fascinating account of Sam Bankman-Fried,” who was recently convicted of fraud for his handling of FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange he founded in 2019. The verdict highlights the vulnerabilities in the cryptocurrency industry and the need for greater regulatory oversight as the number of investment fraud cases has reached its highest level since the FBI began reporting them. Rothbard, who leads the Women’s Executive Leadership program, says the book “has many insights about the challenges of leadership and the world of cryptocurrency trading.”

Marketing professor Dave Reibstein recommends Closing the Equity Gap: Creating Wealth and Fostering Justice in Startup Investing by Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor (Harper Business, 2023). Written by the tech venture capitalists who founded Kapor Capital, the book shows why investing in startups whose products or services close opportunity gaps for both low-income communities and communities of color is good business. Reibstein says, “It addresses an issue we should highlight and steps that can be taken to create wealth and achieve greater equality.”

Klara and the Sun (Vintage, 2022), a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, is neuroscience professor Michael Platt’s choice. This “must-read for folks interested in AI, neuroscience, and higher education, like the best ‘neurolit,’ forces us to confront the thorny issues we're navigating in real time. Set in the near future, this book slowly builds from the childlike observations of an ‘artificial friend’ to deep and troubling questions about the lengths parents will go to help their children get ahead, with sometimes tragic consequences.” The academic director of The Neuroscience of Business: Innovations in Leadership and Strategic Decisions says, “Ultimately, it is about what it means to be human. I absolutely loved this meditation on cognitive enhancement, meritocracy, AI, and mortality. Reading Ishiguro is like watching dust motes dance in a sunbeam.”

Marketing professor and international expert on pricing Z. John Zhang is reading Walter Isaacson’s biography Elon Musk (Simon & Schuster, 2023). “The book has opened my eyes to the high price we are paying as a society because of our growing intolerance of those who are different. Reading the book and understanding what Musk has achieved make it clear that he is in that elite group of people, including Einstein and Steve Jobs, who have changed the world — and those people are all deeply flawed. No one dreams like they do.” Zhang compares Musk’s aerospace achievements with NASA and the Chinese aerospace administration, which employs a million people. “They are not doing nearly as much as Musk is with a tenth of that workforce. For the sake of innovation and the economy, we need to be more tolerant.”

A theme in the book that touches on Zhang’s work is the Tesla price war. Isaacson floats the possibility that it will ruin the company, but Zhang says, “My research shows some price wars are good. The whole reason why people are not converting to electric vehicles is price. Right now, only those with a lot of money are buying them.” The director of Pricing Strategies: Measuring, Capturing, and Retaining Value says, “Starting a price war will make EVs more accessible, which is ultimately good for the environment.”

Cade Massey, who heads the new Executive Influence: Increasing Your Impact with Persuasion and Power program, recommends another biography. “Robert Caro’s Means of Ascent (Vintage, 1991) is the second in his five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro is an extraordinary and unusual historian and I strongly recommend any of his books, in any order. Johnson is a bottomless source of insight on power and influence. Means of Ascent is especially good on the lengths he went to accomplish his goals, for better or worse.”