It’s certainly been a year. In 2020, many people reported losing a sense of the passage of time, as so many of the usual markers and milestones (vacations, graduations, sporting events) were postponed, canceled, or driven online. At the same time, the pandemic has had the effect of accelerating existing trends and pulling tipping points that previously loomed far in the future up to the present day. Keeping track of time accurately has been made all the more difficult because it has been so hard to concentrate amid the miasma of uncertainty and constant barrage of news. “There are weeks where decades happen,” as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who lived through a revolution right around the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, put it.
Which highlights a strange dichotomy. As people are glued to their phones and computers, sales of books — the form of media whose consumption requires long-term concentration and the ability to tune out the world — have actually risen for much of 2020.
If you think it’s challenging to read a book, consider the fortitude it takes to write one in this environment. Ideas gestate for years, and manuscripts move slowly through the cogs of publishing. The long lead times mean authors can catch a wave perfectly, or miss it entirely — and the margin between those two outcomes is razor-thin. The books that stand out in this, our 20th annual Best Business Books collection, land in all types of environments. They reflect periods of calm and periods of angst, years where nothing much happens, and months in which several years seem to take place.
The best books on talent and leadership, as documented by Sally Helgesen, a longtime s+b contributing editor and coauthor of How Women Rise, are all quite timely. They include a comprehensive guide for rebuilding organizations, a research-driven volume on the well-intentioned behaviors that undermine efforts to build inclusive cultures, and a narrative that documents the excruciating ineffectiveness of organizations’ efforts to address racial inequality. Another s+b contributing editor, David Lancefield, found that this year’s best strategy books prod readers to step back from the concerns of getting through the day and focus on the long term — by consciously acting differently tomorrow, by blowing up bureaucracy to release the power of people, and by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence. One way to make sure a book is timed to thrive in a range of news cycles is to focus on the past. This year, Bethany McLean, a Vanity Fair contributor and narrative nonfiction ace, chose to focus on histories of industries and companies, and the subjects of her picks include banking dynasties in Shanghai, the progenitor of a legendary 19th-century revolver, and a largely forgotten 1950s-era data analytics company. By contrast, s+b contributing editor Theodore Kinni finds that this year’s best management volumes can help managers identify and cope with pandemic-related challenges. In a world of seismic and massive changes, Kinni concludes that a book that focuses on small changes as a way to create positive behaviors and alter negative ones offers the year’s most compelling practical advice. Economics is often called “the dismal science.” And perhaps appropriately for our moment, Ryan Avent, a columnist at the Economist, notes that this year’s best books on the subject focus on the downside of economic cycles. Those include a short take on the social origins of trade wars, a treatise on the troubling impacts of the opioid crisis on U.S. life expectancy, and a biography of the economist whose ideas gained salience in the Great Depression. Tech and innovation can usually be counted on to provide an optimistic look at the future. Even this year was no exception. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, trained his eye on the wisdom embedded in books that celebrate the messiness and uncertainty inherent in the process of discovering breakthroughs and bringing them to market. And although data increasingly predominates in business affairs, veteran journalist Tony Case argues that this year’s best books on marketing focus on the human element of how products and services are sold. In so doing, they provide a useful corrective to the dominance of information technology. It turns out that the companies that build the most successful customer- and user-focused operations are figuring out how to marry technology and humanity.
As we look ahead to the coming year, the notion that technology and innovation can be fueled by empathy and understanding should offer us some hope for a better future — next year, and in the next decade.
s+b’s Top Shelf
Our picks for the best business books of 2020 in seven categories.