(Bloomberg) — Considering the challenges presented by 2020, many of the books business leaders recommend this year aren’t technically business books at all—or from this year, for that matter: John Barry’s 2004 history of an earlier pandemic, The Great Influenza, was cited by both Axel Hefer, managing director of Trivago, and David Solomon, chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, who called it “important to try and help put the pandemic into context.”
Even among books published in the last 12 months, an attempt to find historical analogies to present-day issues runs through the selections. Erik Larson’s epic retelling of Winston Churchill’s handling of the 1940 Blitz, The Splendid and the Vile, was a popular choice. “The book speaks to fearless leadership in the darkest hour,” says Jonathan Gray, president and chief operating officer of Blackstone Group. “A powerful lesson for the challenges of 2020.”
Roger Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of TIAA, recommends The Man Who Ran Washington, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s biography of James Baker III. Although it’s from a more recent time, Ferguson says, you can still “see the seeds of today’s hyper-partisan politics being planted during this period.”
A year that brought renewed attention to the legacy of racial inequality in the U.S. sent three people on our list to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Erika James, dean of the Wharton School, says that the most alarming realization from the book is that “other countries modeled their own caste structures on the U.S.,” adding that it was hard to take in, “but I could not put it down.”
Not all the selections are as serious. Larry Gagosian, the blue-chip art gallerist, used Sam Wasson’s history of the movie Chinatown to find new meaning in producer Robert Evans’s famous quote that the path to success was to “bet on talent.” And Mary Mack, CEO of consumer and small business banking at Wells Fargo, described Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed as “an authentic and empowering kick in the tail.” Here are the year’s 52 best books.
President & COO, Blackstone Group
By Erik Larson