Why chief executives will never choose to read novels

Mon, Sep 29, 2008, 01:00

Even though everyone can now afford books, still no one reads. It is not just the factory workers who don't read: managers don't either, writes Lucy Kellaway

IN 1946, a friend of George Orwell was having a chat with a couple of factory workers about reading and about why they didn't do much of it. "Chaps like us couldn't spend 12s 6d on a book," one of them explained.

This story prompted Orwell to write a short essay called Books v Cigarettes, which has just been republished by Penguin. He starts by counting the number of volumes on his shelves (442), adjusts for books that were gifts or on loan, adds it all up and works out that he spent £25 a year on reading, which is £15 less than he spent on smoking. He then attempts to put a price on the amusement per hour to be got from reading and concludes it is the cheapest pleasure there is, apart from listening to the radio.

One could pick holes in his methodology - no adjustment for inflation, for instance - yet his conclusion is right. The reason that people don't read books has nothing to do with the cost: it is because they would rather go to the dogs or the pub instead.

Sixty years on, books are even cheaper. I have done my own calculations and can confirm that, since 1946, the price of a good hardback has gone up from about 12s 6d to about £16.99, a 28-fold rise. While a packet of 20 cigarettes - which was then 1s 4d - has gone up 75 times. Even though everyone can now afford books, still no one reads. It is not just the factory workers who don't read: managers don't either. And what they don't read in particular is novels.

I have just asked two senior executives what it is that puts them off. Both said the same thing: I don't have time. One claimed to read novels on holiday but, when pressed, could only mention Robert Harris's latest thriller that he hadn't quite finished. The other said he read biographies and history. He shunned novels as he liked to learn something from a book.

But on this last point he may be wrong. Managers can learn a great deal from fiction, or so thinks Sandra Sucher. She teaches a course at Harvard Business School in which she makes chief executives sit down and talk about novels.

She thinks that business leaders should steal the idea of book clubs from their wives, and get together with their peers once a month to thrash out the moral dilemmas posed in fiction. She suggests they discuss Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day, which is about the reminiscences of a lonely, elderly English butler. He measured out his life in polishing coffee spoons, showing undying loyalty to his boss rather than chasing the woman he loved. The plight of this Edwardian butler is meant to drive home the point to businessmen that employee loyalty comes at a cost.

Last week, I decided to look for other titles suitable for chief executives and visited a bookshop that has just opened in Bloomsbury called The School of Life. It is a peculiar little place, an uneasy cross of retro, new age and wacky, backed by popular philosopher Alain de Botton. It employs two "bibliologists" who offer reading prescriptions for books that will "transform and illuminate" people's lives.

I asked one of them for books to illuminate the life of a powerful chief executive of a big company. She recommended, among other things, Tess of the D'Urbervilles as it would show how not to treat people in a subservient position. And The Grapes of Wrath, which would show the pitfalls of being in charge.

I would like to like this reading club idea but, in truth, I think it is hopeless. Chief executives spend so much time in meetings already, I cannot see how further time round the table hearing the sound of their own voices is going to bring on a breakthrough on the moral front.

I am also worried about the lessons from these novels. Great literature is about subtlety and ambiguity: business trades in certainty and probability. It is hard to see what chief executives would gain from discussing Hardy's novel about premarital sex, convention, murder, passion. I wept buckets reading it in my 20s, and I think I concluded that love could be hard, especially back then.

For me, the point of reading novels is to escape into someone else's world. I loved Tess of the D'Urbervilles, partly because I enjoyed being a pretty milkmaid with a guilty secret chased by a handsome vicar's son. And this, I think, is why chief executives will never get the hang of reading novels.

Because they are happy with their own lives and feel no desire to put on frilly caps and be milkmaids.

Still, if all else fails, at least fiction is very good for showing off. The boss of a friend who works for a big company was recently trying to get his team to come up with personal brand values. To explain the concept, he got them all to discuss the brand values of Gwendolen Harleth. Many of the team were stymied in this exercise by ignorance of Daniel Deronda, which allowed the boss to revel in his cultural superiority. The story makes me shudder: the attempt to impose something as trite as personal brand values on the sublimity of George Eliot is bordering on blasphemy.

More than this, there is one huge thing to be gained from reading fiction - that it helps one write more elegantly.

In the end, this is why chief executives should read Hardy or Steinbeck: there is not a paradigm shift or a core competency to be found in either.