Reading classic literature transforms the mind in a way different than straight documentary style story-telling—and transforms it in a way that, amongst other things, makes for a better business acumen.
“It’s when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavor of alternate worlds of experience,” wrote Anne Kreamer in The Harvard Business Review.
And according to a study published in the Creativity Research Journal there is a significant connection between the amount of fiction a person reads, their empathy, and their “theory of mind” abilities—essential in today’s business climate.
Theory of mind, the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others’ points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.
In her article Kreamer cites several studies published by Harvard, NYU, and Yale, that all point to one main idea: reading literature enhances the ability to read people. And reading people is a key element of successfully navigating the business world.
In theory, of course, any literature that delves deeply into the human condition will also make the reader a better reader of people. But with limited time, Literary Manhattan has here compiled a list of six of our favorite works specifically within the context of business.
Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City— The unnamed protagonist of this novel gets caught up in the 1980’s New York fast lane, and has difficulty striking a balance between the job that allows him to stay in New York, and the destructive lifestyle he finds himself living. Written in the second person McInerney’s classic gives a unique perspective of New York business culture.
Joseph Heller, Something Happened — This New York author’s second novel follows middle manager Joe Slocum as he anticipates a promotion. The accentuated stream-of-consciousness style takes on a new meaning as Slocum begins to doubt his own sanity, making for an interesting study of the theory of the mind.
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle— With a journalist’s eye for accuracy, Sinclair tells a story of corporate corruption and its effects on the working class. Originally published in 1905, the novel remains fresh with its timeless portrayal of the human condition.
William Gaddis, JR — Born in New York City, Gaddis’ father was a Wall Street insider and politician, and his mother was an executive at the New York Steam Corporation. With an inborn insider’s intuition, Gaddis here tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who hoards a fortune in penny stock holdings using nothing but a payphone and postal money orders.
Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman—After a business trip goes wrong, salesman Willy Loman’s mental state begins to degenerate as he laments his son Biff’s lack of accomplishment. Willy encourages Biff to pursue a career in business, and in order to pacify his father, he agrees, but things do not work out how either would prefer.
Kurt Andersen, Turn of the Century —This long-time New York author tells the story of a successful TV producer husband and entrepreneur wife trying to strike a balance between work and life who end up battling each other as executives in a media empire. Andersen’s third novel is due to come out in the Summer of this year.
Of course, there’s still no guarantee that by understanding other people’s “worlds” you’ll be able to interpret that subtle gesture of a competitor’s hand and turn it into a million dollar business endeavor, but reading literature may just give you that little extra edge.
So don’t give up on the MBA and the Harvard Business Review, but don’t set down the classics altogether either.