You know the question is chiefly rhetorical even as you put it to your companions, a brainy, svelte, well-traveled pair who love good food and wine. "But if you've heard that Cormac McCarthy and V.S. Naipaul are magnificent writers," you say, "why haven't you read any of their books?"
Both halves of this couple -- presently pressing their Stanford M.B.A. degrees into service at famous California computer companies -- are superior specimens of the managerial subspecies. They answer the question and your look of rank incredulity with a smile of mixed affection and condescension. It is the smile of people whose choices are perfectly synchronized with the tastes and conventions of their day.
"I don't read any book I can't finish on a flight between the coasts," she says. "And, hey, no one else does!"
"So we read John Grisham. And Maeve Binchy and Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton," he adds. "Or if we hack out time for anything longer, the latest Tom Peters and Peter Drucker books."
I am sorry to hear our best writers being marginalized as high culture of no interest or use to people manning the forges of capitalism. But to me, this couple's point of view has had a terrible familiarity at least since the late 1970s and 1980s, when I wrote about business for The Economist and Business Week. Business people I met who read modern literature -- or any literary fiction at all -- were almost always older Europeans with anachronistic well-rounded educations, working for large companies moving slowly enough to let me pick their employees' brains over leisurely, three-course lunches. Younger European managers closer to my own age imitated America's best and brightest, who were super-specialists, and preferred to meet for breakfast. For them, the world of business management and the world of literature -- in fact, of any intellectual or aesthetic pursuit divorced from the profit motive -- were mutually alien.
But once, things were very different. We are reminded of this in a marvelous oddity -- a first-rate new book about business that will most delight readers who use the typically unread business sections of their newspapers to line cat litter trays. In his wittily encyclopedic, fast-paced "Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life," the British social historian Anthony Sampson even hints at a possible rapprochement between lovers of literature and business in the future.
Sampson tells us about the example set by history's most astonishing firm, the British East India Company. Following its establishment in 1600, it proceeded from monopolizing trade with India to wresting administrative control of the subcontinent from native rulers, and lasted for two and a half centuries. "Over its long life," he writes, "the East India Company had built up a tradition of loyal company men, including writers and scholars who could thrive in their jobs without being cut off from intellectual activity."
At various times, men who put in decades as Company administrators included the satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock and the philosopher John Stuart Mill ("who wrote much of his great works, 'System of Logic' and 'Principles of Political Economy,' in office hours") and, in a clerical post, the essayist Charles Lamb, who arrived late and left early in his six-hour workday. The East India Company, Sampson says, valued original thinking as much as dedicated service in its top cadre of managers.
From the merchant trading firms of the 17th century, "Company Man" follows its subject through the era of monster multinational companies ("...corporations and socialist bureaucracies...both depended on commands from the top which prevented initiatives and ideas from the bottom") to the entrepreneurial dynamos of Silicon Valley.
In a way no other writer on business has ever done, Sampson links changing fashions in management theory and practice to the interior lives of company men. He does this through a dazzling, seemingly exhaustive survey of fictional treatments of corporate and office life -- all the way from Charles Dickens' "Dombey and Son" (1848) and Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" (1901) to John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8" (1935) and Joseph Heller's "Something Happened" (1974) and, finally, movies like "Working Girl" (1988) and "The Temp" (1993).
By the late 20th century, Sampson says, "Novelists and historians regarded company people as a race apart, much further apart than lawyers, doctors or Members of Parliament, even than generals or admirals."
Yet -- and he found his subject in exploring this paradox -- they are now "at the center of society". Company man's social presence is everywhere, "his habits and preferences were changing the lifestyles of cities and suburbs, his conferences and entertainments determined the design of hotels and restaurants; his travels decided the air routes; his language and priorities permeated politics, public service and even academia."
Sampson traces the curious contradiction between the pervasiveness of business culture and its alienation from ordinary human life to the massive regimentation of men and materials that the first railways called for. By the end of the 19th century, "The gradual, organic growth of family firms and local industries had given way to the mechanical structures of the railroads." People working in companies began to complain of feeling like cogs in wheels; of losing their individuality to become "mass-produced company men". The result? "Office-life became a central but segregated part of the social life of the 20th century."
Yet "Company Man" is cheerful in its conclusions, largely because of the downfall of stodgy large companies in the 1980s and 1990s -- most spectacularly, that of IBM, whose managers were encouraged to do anything but think for themselves in spite of "THINK," the company slogan. Sampson sees hope for the future in the success of the individualistic entrepreneurs and executives of Silicon Valley, who prize innovation and ideas far above the pieties of Organization Man, the conformist model for 1950s America.
In Silicon Valley, "Creative young people could thrive in fast-changing industries where managers were too old at 50...With ideas at a premium, the intellectual was no longer necessarily at odds with the manager: there might even be a return to the pattern of the East India Company man 150 years earlier, who wrote poetry and philosophy between planning sea routes and supplies."
On this score, Anthony Sampson and I part company, even if I would love to be dead wrong and find his guarded optimism to be justified. Not only is it hard to see anything of the kind actually happening but its very opposite -- a widening of the gulf between business and aesthetic creativity -- seems the most likely development. His own evidence supports the gloomier view. For instance, he charts the trend of "downsizing" corporations all over the world. Lean and mean "flat" (as opposed to hierarchical) organizations are today's ideal, which greatly increases every individual employee's workload and leaves virtually no time for other pursuits. In this brave new world, even working at home does not help much. Telecommuting, he notes, while it fosters a dream of reconnecting family and company life, has been found in one British study to face "home tele-workers...(with) repeated strains between the demands of their families and their business tasks."
Not only does the contemporary company man have too little leisure to approach the stunning range of his East India predecessors, but his education is too narrowly specialized. Even the brilliant Bill Gates is just a collector of art treasures with an unusually plump wallet and, evidently, the ambition of attaining posthumous renown as a "Renaissance man": as a connoisseur, he is still only in kindergarten.
But perhaps businesspeople of the future will adopt for their lives a pattern of saving furiously in their working years and retiring in their early 50s. Then -- with longevity on the increase -- perhaps they will use their remaining half-centuries to re-educate themselves and turn out not poems or novels or philosophical tracts but marvels of multimedia software -- art for art's sake of which we can have only the faintest glimmer today.