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"The Book on Business"
February 2004
by the Business Librarians at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Previous Issues

PN6071.M55 L58 2003x
The Literary Book of Economics : Including Readings from Literature and Drama on Economic Concepts, Issues, and Themes

edited with commentary by Michael Watts. ISI Books, 2003.

The Oxford Dictionary of Economics defines pareto-optimality as "a situation in which no feasible change can raise anybody's welfare without lowering that of somebody else." But Joseph Heller, in his satirical World War II novel Catch 22, approaches it this way:

Yossarian was riding beside Milo in the co-pilot's seat. "I don't understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and then sell them for five cents."
"I do it to make a profit."
"But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg."
"But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don't make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share."
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. One of the most potent features of great literature lies in its power to present big ideas through the seeming trivialities of daily life. In his new anthology, The Literary Book of Economics, editor Michael Watts pursues this power by selecting passages from classic literature to shed light on economic principles, with fascinating, if occasionally mixed, results. Each chapter starts with a brief explanation of a major economic idea and follows with excerpts from novels, memoirs, poems and short stories, which provide a vivid context through which the idea can be framed.

It's hard to imagine more pleasurable lessons in the dismal science than the ones we get from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (the principal agent problem), Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier (labor markets and human capital) or Steinbeck's glorious Travels with Charlie (economies of scale). Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride gives examples of pricing based on supply and demand in a segment that richly describes how a even a "hippie" shop isn't immune to the bottom line.

Watts is somewhat repetitive with his choice of authors. Steinbeck pieces alone represent almost 10% of the book's content and the inclusion of not one, but three, excerpts from John Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" seems excessive, and maybe a little lazy. And slogging through prose as clumsy as Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" is akin to getting whacked with a pillowcase stuffed with telephone books, but admittedly that is subjective territory.

For the most part, though, economics goes down easy in this far-ranging compilation of excellent literature, covering over 70 writers and four centuries. At his best Watts is adept at finding common ground between literature and economics and ably proves that the leap from Keats to Keynes may not be as big as it seems.

HF5823.K265 2003
Bang! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World

by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Doubleday, 2003.

With all the stimuli that assault our senses today, how does an advertisement get our attention? Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, executives at the highly successful advertising agency Kaplan Thaler Group, address this question. They distill the elements of their own success while recounting fascinating stories of winning campaigns. Their message in brief: you need a Big Bang. Like the cosmic Big Bang, such attention-getting ideas are disruptive, illogical, and have dramatic impact.

Thaler and Koval promise that their guidelines for originating bang-up ideas will enable advertising and marketing agencies to increase their market share exponentially. What are their credentials for making such a bold claim? It was their agency that came up with the AFLAC commercials, with its maddening, un-ignorable, DUCK. Whether or not the duck drives you crazy, the story of how it was created makes a great read. Today, AFLAC enjoys a 91% name recognition.

Having intrigued us with the AFLAC story, Thaler and Koval amplify principles they have derived from their many successes. Principal among their strategies: forget every rule you ever learned. Clairol's "Totally Organic Experience" for the Herbal Essences product was a case in point. Instead of featuring the end product of clean hair--historically the focus of shampoo ads--the agency focused on the experience of the washing one's hair.

Other recommendations include: creating an office environment where the staff enjoys maximum interaction, enabling curious or circuitous connections that no one has made before. Or encouraging chaos, which permits the generative rambling discussions that resulted in the Parmalat milk ads. Stop thinking and use your intuition. While a company may provide reams of facts about its products, it is often most effective to invoke the emotional responses engendered by a given product.

The authors caution that developing a powerful idea is only part of the challenge. It is also important to be diligent in presenting it to the company, to know your clients and appeal to what is meaningful to them. Rehearse the presentation, include a warm-up act, and don't forget the follow-through.

Using their own successes, as well as drawing upon the writings and experience of others, Thaler and Koval present a lively exposition of how they achieved their memorable advertising campaigns. While the style is a little jumpy, the material is engaging. Even if you are not in the advertising business, this is an enjoyable book to read. And afterwards, you may even want to go out and promote an idea!

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Also recommended are:

HD9666.4.G74 2003
The Big Fix: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Rips Off American Consumers

by Katharine Greider. PublicAffairs, 2003.

HG179.B72755 2003
Girl, Make Your Money Grow! A Sister's Guide to Protecting Your Future and Enriching Your Life

by Glinda Bridforth and Gail Perry-Mason. Broadway Books, 2003.

Contact the business librarians, who also answer questions about business, money, and work, at (412) 281-7141 or at

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