The best business books for appreciating how the world really works

Who am I?

Sometimes I feel like we know more about the anthropologies of ancient civilizations and remote tribes than about the business most people do every day. There's mystery behind the curtain. To me, good nonfiction that goes deep inside a business is about our culture and how our world works. It's a way to understand everything we interact with and how it got there. I have enjoyed telling specific business creation stories as a business journalist, but understanding what truly turns the gears has informed writing I have done on every subject, including my humor.

I wrote...

The Kickstarter Handbook: Real-Life Crowdfunding Success Stories

By Don Steinberg,

Book cover of The Kickstarter Handbook: Real-Life Crowdfunding Success Stories

What is my book about?

I like to mix useful information with engaging stories. So I tried to make the Kickstarter Handbook a fun read and a hands-on resource for entrepreneurs. Every Kickstarter campaign is its own thrilling adventure, a story of desire and obstacle, creativity, perseverance, denial, anger, bargaining, failure and success. I think these tales help make the book a pleasant and enlightening read, no matter what you actually wanted to read about.

The books I picked & why

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Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain

By Jonathan Kingsman,

Book cover of Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain

Why this book?

This book reveals a substantial but obscure piece of the world economy. It's gonna blow your mind how much grains influence the world. Corn is in food and packaging and gasoline. Palm oil is in everything. Wheat, rice, soybeans…apparently billions of people eat this stuff. Commodities futures trading is about high finance but also farming, land use, biotech, politics, and climate change. Kingsman is a lively writer, considering he's a career commodities trader, and he interviews insiders at companies including the "ABCD" giants -- ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus (of the Julia Louis-Dreyfuses).

How to Get Rich: One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets

By Felix Dennis,

Book cover of How to Get Rich: One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets

Why this book?

The title is a trick, probably the publisher's idea. Dennis (who passed away in 2014) expresses qualms about the whole getting rich idea. Before becoming a magazine multimillionaire (The Week, Maxim, Stuff) he was a poet, jailed in 1971 for editing an obscene humor magazine. He borrowed to start his publishing empire with Cozmic Comics and Kung Fu Monthly. He writes that anyone can raise capital -- you just need enough confidence in your plan to grovel and risk your friends' money. I forever carry his advice on negotiation: whoever cares less wins. Negotiate hard, be sure about what you'd like, but be ready to walk away, because no deal is a must-do.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

By Marc Levinson,

Book cover of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Why this book?

In a blurb on the back, a guy says "the modern shipping container may be a close second to the Internet on the way it has changed our lives." That's debatable, but Levinson makes the case in telling the history and impact of those 40-foot metal boxes that stack on freight ships and transfer easily to trains to trucks. Back in the On The Waterfront days, goods and crates and canvas sacks hoisted by ropes were loaded and unloaded separately onto ships. It was death-defying labor for longshoremen, and inefficient business. Containers that could travel neatly and intermodally made goods cheaper for consumers everywhere, created global markets, and killed many jobs. So maybe they were the first Internet!

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

By Michael Moss,

Book cover of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Why this book?

I grew up at a time when the characters on cereal boxes had their own Saturday morning cartoon shows. Stuff like that was pioneered by packaged-food companies that were funding experiments to determine the perfect "bliss point" for how much sugar they could load into kid's mouths. Moss chronicles food companies' relentless push of "convenience" over health, from instant pudding to cake mixes, while fighting to minimize medical research into obesity, tooth decay, and other bad news. He tells about Betty Dickson, a healthy foods activist who gained traction in the 1950s persuading women to cook meals from scratch at home. General Foods wanted to sell boxed cake mixes, so it created Betty Crocker, a fake cooking authority named Betty who became more famous and influential. Moss's new book, "Hooked," is a sort of sequel.

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

By Benjamin Lorr,

Book cover of The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

Why this book?

Sorry, it's another behind-the-scenes food book on my list. But food is something we all like to eat, and we ought to know how it happens. Lorr rips into the way supermarkets choose foods based on profit margins, shelf appeal, and turnover rather than necessarily tasting great, or being healthful. And also on lucrative "slotting fees" -- manufacturers paying to have products on the shelves. Lorr saves special spite for the way the trucking industry exploits drivers. His histories of grocery chains like Trader Joe's and ALDI are fascinating, and he gets a job at Whole Foods, where he learns the magic phrase employees are trained to say to cranky or bothersome customers: "Sounds important!"

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