Sometimes great works get plucked out of obscurity just because someone famous likes ’em. Usually, the celebrity recommendation turns out to be the most interesting thing about what’s been uncovered. But every now and then, the well-known person does us all a favor. This is one of those times. Bill Gates is responsible for the return of John Brooks’s long-out-of-print Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Streetand making this available again almost makes up for Windows 8.
Business Adventures is a collection of articles Brooks wrote for The New Yorker from 1959 to 1969. It’s a book about businessmen of the time, avowed squares. Little of the sixties counterculture shows up in these pages except as something far in the distance, but reading these articles roughly half a century later gives you a sense of how exciting working on breakthrough projects has always been, even when they go wrong. Business Adventures reveals again and again how to tell stories about companies: find them at pivotal moments in their existence, talk to the people making the changes there, and look under rocks other people aren’t considering. Many of the companies Brooks reports on are now either long gone or far from their peaks. And the speed of the stock market in the early 1960s that he describes seems quaint. Yet some things never change. The quote that ends his stock market piece — “It is foolish to think that you can withdraw from the Exchange after you have tasted the sweetness of the honey” — captures the eternal excitement traders feel.
At their great length, these article are definitely Wallace Shawn-era New Yorker. But on almost every page, there’s something to make you pay attention. Take the book’s top essay, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” great from the title down. Read it and you’ll learn that things we take for granted weren’t always so; I had no idea that, at first, businesses didn’t want to copy paper. They had to be convinced. You might not want to work alongside the wild-eyed investors or litigious executives in this book. But you’ll learn from most of them and you’ll see people — like a man in court wearing an astronaut’s costume — you’d never see in another business book.