Faculty Summer Reading Recommendations
Harvard Business School faculty members share their summer reading lists, pulling from the worlds of technology, history, and fiction to inform their work on campus.
30 Jun 2021  

What’s on HBS faculty members’ reading list for summer 2021? Which books are most meaningful to them and why? Below, faculty share their top picks, ranging from biographies and memoirs to their colleagues’ latest works.

Featured Faculty Members: Julia Austin, Jeff Bussgang, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Scott Duke Kominers, Karim Lakhani, George Serafeim, Mitch Weiss

I recently read When They Call You A Terrorist, a deeply powerful memoir by Patrisse Cullors, the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cullors shares her incredible journey from childhood to adulthood as a Black queer woman in LA. It is an emotional, yet insightful book worth reading. My college freshman shared her copy of the book with me after she raved about it and we both continue to reflect on key learnings. I swiftly followed this book with A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which contributed towards my cultural awareness learning; it is also an artistic gem that I could not put down!

I am currently enjoying my colleague Tom Eisenmann's latest book, Why Startups Fail. This book is a well-crafted collection of case examples of how startups fail. Eisenmann offers a means for both entrepreneurs and their investors to see around corners with useful frameworks to examine every stage of a startup's growth trajectory. It truly is a must-read for anyone in the startup ecosystem.

For my routine long drives between NY and MA this summer, I am listening to the calming (and funny!) voice of Barack Obama narrating A Promised Land. There truly is no other way to absorb this massive tale of his life, family, marriage, and political journey. I'm five hours into the 29-hour tale and plan to listen to Michelle's version of the story in Becoming as soon as I finish Barack's book. I've been told Michelle's story is a stark contrast and look forward to hearing her side of things.

Next up for me this summer for physical books is my colleague Tsedal Neeley's Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere. As a longtime leader of remote teams myself, I have found it fascinating to see the world adapt to "WFH" and now prepare for some sort of return to the office strategy. I am looking forward to getting Tsedal's perspective on this topic!

Finally, two books I completed earlier this spring and highly recommend because both are jam-packed with useful tips on justice and climate issues. First, HBS alumnae Kim Scott's book Just Work offers practical ways to serve as an upstander and deal with injustice at work. Second, my dear friend Laurie David and her co-author Heather Reisman's book Imagine It! not only unpacks how our everyday product use impacts climate change, but they suggest many products and offer countless tips on how to lower your carbon footprint every day.

Ali: A Life: After watching “One Night in Miami,” I decided to read this sweeping biography of Muhammad Ali. The book frames the arc of Ali’s life as a social justice warrior, not just a pugilist, placing him as one of the most impactful civil rights leaders of his era alongside Malcolm X and MLK. America initially loathed him for refusing to go to Vietnam (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”) and then loved him for his courage and grace. During this era, the book makes it clear that Ali didn’t change—America did.

The Tyranny of Merit: Michael Sandel is one of the greatest living philosophers in America and this book does not disappoint. I loved his class, Justice, as a Harvard freshman and doubly loved this book as a college parent. In it, he exposes the downside of our meritocratic society—spurred on by pushy parents and elite universities—and reminds us the value of a common good.

The Code Breaker: I am a software/tech guy and have scant knowledge of the world of biology. Yet living in Boston and emerging from this pandemic, I feel it is my civic duty to better understand the biotech wave. This book was an amazing portal into the invention of CRISPR and some of the big personalities and battles that led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year. Walter Isaacson is a wonderful storyteller and a master at simplifying complex concepts for a layperson.

For summer reading, I like gripping novels but also provocative insights into current issues. The Black Church, by Henry Louis (“Skip) Gates Jr provides a unique perspective on a major institution that we don’t often examine, so it is a new look at race in America.

I plan to read outside under trees, but worrying about what climate change will mean for lovely landscapes. The U.S. needs to know more about China in that regard, so I’ll be reading Toxic Politics, by Yanzhong Huang, which is subtitled China’s Environmental Health Crisis and its Challenge to the Chinese State. To feel better about what can be done about global warming, I recommend The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, the illustrated edition. Looking at trees, even pictures of trees, is said to make people happier, and trees are a great carbon-absorber.

I’m always interested in progress for women. I will dip into Creating Gender-Inclusive Organizations, edited by Ellen Ernst Kossek and Kyung-Hee Lee; Indivisible by Alison Maitland and Rebekah Steele, a short handbook for rethinking diversity and inclusion; and the new book Glass Half-Broken, by HBS colleagues Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg.

Voting rights is a contentious immediate issue in America, which is puzzling to those of us who feel democracy rests on full participation. But democracy isn’t just voting. It is the willingness to work together at the grass roots and in government to solve problems, as I argue in my own recent book, Think Outside the Building. This summer, instead of theories about democracy or its rise and fall, I plan to focus on how Americans can find shared interests on the ground. One example is United America by Wayne Baker, about 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear and hold in common. This short, fast read was published in 2014, before we saw just how divisive politics could get. It is a good segue to the newly-published book Our Common Ground, by Diane Hessan, based on four years of conversations with American voters, showing that we might not always be permanently stuck in partisan divides. That’s another bit of good news about the power of listening.

A business book about how one CEO listened is Around the Corner to Around the World by Robert Rosenberg, a memoir about the early history and explosive growth of Dunkin Donuts. HBS alumnus Rosenberg tells a great story that includes personal insights about nearly everything you want to know about managing family conflict, scaling a startup, picking talent, leading turnarounds, and engaging with private equity.

The novels I’ll be reading are my perennial favorite legal thrillers and courtroom dramas, especially by the prolific John Lescroart. His characters grow over many books—and grow on you. I enjoy rereading them even if I know who did the foul deed. I will also read literary fiction such as Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. This novel is about a young girl that includes a murder mystery and is set in rural America—thereby combining several of my favorite issues.

I have the habit of reading three books at a time: a biography, some other non-fiction, and a work of fiction. For biographies, I’ve been on a music kick: I recently finished Fred Schruers’s biography of Billy Joel, and up next is Elton John’s autobiography, Me.

For nonfiction, I’ve just started Jia Lynn Yang’s One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, which chronicles the lead-up to and impact of America’s Immigration and Nationality Act—landmark 1960s legislation that opened the country to much broader immigration from parts of the world other than Europe.

And for fiction, I’m slowly making my way through the Arthur Waley translation of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu’s epic novel of feudal Japan.

In parallel with all of that, I’ve also been enjoying Mezzanine—a recent book of poetry by my spectacular doctoral student Zoë Hitzig, and Peter Winkler’s newest Mathematical Puzzles compendium.

Summer for me is to dive deep into fiction—mostly science fiction and fantasy—so I can be immersed in worlds and futures not typically imagined. I do it both for the escape and fun but also for what it provokes for me in my own research. Indeed, the book I co-wrote with Marco Iansiti, Competing in the Age of Ai, is partially inspired by the writings of Iain Banks and the (so amazing) Culture Series, Ann Leckie and the Ancillary Justice series, and anything that William Gibson and Neal Stephenson writes.

This summer I want to complete the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells—a super fun series about a killer robot that is sometimes passing as human. Also on the list are A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge, a book I am reading as part of book club on Twitter populated by nerdy economists of science on #EconTwitter, and The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, an amazing author with an incredible imagination and sweet prose. Since Ada Palmer has a new book coming out in the Terra Ignota series I will probably go back and start reading her first book again, Too Like the Lightning.

While I am reading these books in my garden or roof deck or beach or goofing off in the office, I will be dreaming about the new books to come from Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin. But then I have been waiting for their books for more than five years—so one can keep hoping!

Impact: Reshaping Capitalism to Drive Real Change by Sir Rοnald Cohen. Sir Ronald is an alumnus of HBS and his book is a tremendous one. It offers practical, actionable insights and a real roadmap for change to improve capitalism in order to provide solutions to the environmental and social challenges we are facing, such as climate change and inequality.

Sir Ronald’s track record in implementing change and creating the conditions for institutional innovation does not only make him an ideal person to write this book, but the readers can get inspiration from someone who has implemented change throughout his distinguished career. As a father of the European venture capital industry and the impact investment movement, he provides fascinating stories and actions on how each one of us can make a difference to create an economy that optimizes not only risk and return but also impact.

As an author myself, I recently wrote We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems. The work I did in researching my book has helped shape what I like to read.

I’ll be reading The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. I hear so often that all of us, including our governments, will be more inventive post-pandemic. I hope we will be, but it’s not inevitable. Will our agility stay when Covid is gone? To know that, in part we have to be clear about where we tried new things in our pandemic response and where we hesitated too long or failed to try altogether. I’m confident Lewis will shed insight there.

In fact, a handful of books have come out recently or adjacent to the topic of what I call “possibility government.” Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World is just out from Beth Simone Noveck, and I am looking forward to digging in to this guide to public entrepreneurship. Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank’s Power to the Public: The Promise of Public Interest Technology came out earlier this year, and should be on the summer reading list of people interested in the opportunities and challenges of technology for public stuff. I’ll also be reading Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism. She’s long provided evidence that contradicts the view of government as risk-avoidant and un-innovative. I am interested to dive in as she connects the dots from more inventive and ambitious government to a more dynamic, more sustainable capitalism.


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