7 Hand-Picked Fiction Reads and Why They’re Important For Business Leaders

26 January 2017

By Caroline Newman

Professor Greg Fairchild has read his fair share of business books, but also finds no shortage of fictional inspiration.

Fairchild is the Isadore Horween Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. In addition to his award-winning work in the classroom, Fairchild leads a prison outreach program teaching inmates business and entrepreneurial skills to help them rebuild their lives when they are released.

As the new school year begins, Fairchild has put together a list of seven novels that he finds enjoyable and inspirational – great for both taking a break and finding new ideas. Each one tackles themes that he believes will be important for companies and individuals this year – whether the fragility of privacy on the Internet, the human toll of jobs lost to technology or the humanitarian needs of the refugee crisis.

Below, Fairchild shared his recommendations and commentary with UVA Today.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

“Lee’s narrative, written decades ago, follows Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch home to find out that she and her idolized father have very different views of the world. In one sense, the novel is about familial conflicts that many of us can recognize.

“I’ve been thinking recently that the book has in some ways foreshadowed what have become deep, longstanding rifts that we don’t often bring into the open — between generations, regions of our country and social classes. The conflicts faced by Atticus Finch between his own private beliefs regarding race relations and his professional calling were shocking to me at first, and then, were familiar.”

This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman

“Schulman provides a cautionary tale of an educated, affluent family that is striving for the good things – getting their children into the right schools (and once there, befriending the right families); dealing with the stresses of high-profile careers; and pondering whether being educated is as important as being wealthy. These challenges are common to many families, but the plot pushes forward when one of their teenagers forwards a sexually explicit video to friends.

“I’ve thought about the book a great deal recently, as firms deal with the reality of what they assumed was private information becoming visible to the public. The fallout is measured in organizational and personal costs.”

John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead

“Whitehead is a MacArthur genius grant winner and the author of last year’s National Book Award winner, ‘Underground Railroad,’ which I enjoyed immensely. Whitehead’s earlier work, ‘John Henry Days,’ deals with the challenges of finding meaning during a time when modern technology is transforming the value of work, the amount workers in fields are paid (and their identities, given traditional gender roles). The narrator, J. Sutter, is a writer dispatched to cover the unveiling of a stamp in honor of the ‘steel driving man’ of the title, who competes and defeats a new technology, and ultimately gives his life.

“I have thought quite a bit about the challenges of work for men and women in today’s society that are in areas that, while enshrined in our national identity, may be soon replaced by technology.”

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

“This book is a perennial airport bookstore favorite and despite that dubious honor, I am drawn back to it in recent months because Cleave sets much of the action in this story in a United Kingdom institution for refugees. It’s been increasingly difficult to avoid this reality in our communities and I am still haunted by the photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach. The refugee crisis does not have easy answers, but leaves haunting feelings. Cleave’s narrative is written from two perspectives: one of an African refugee seeking asylum and one of a British journalist who coincidentally is touched by her.”

Good Will, by Jane Smiley

“This novella is written through the voice of the narrator, a back-to-the-earth farmer. He, his wife and son live what he believes is a good and virtuous life of simplicity, clear from the vagaries and confines of material possessions. The plot begins to move when their young son goes to school and destroys one of the wealthier children’s possessions in what appears to be economic jealousy. Compounding this issue is that the child targeted is the school’s only African-American child.

“The parents struggle with a number of contemporary issues — have their lifestyle choices contributed to a sense of deprivation in their son, and in concert, jealousy?; the realization that the community’s sole African-American family and theirs share a sense of otherness, and that their son has contributed to that feeling for this family.

“This wonderful novella reminds me of how our institutions — schools, workplaces — bring us together, but mask the differences that might be below the surface. Smiley goes beyond simply introducing these dilemmas to engaging in what to do about them.”

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, by Ernest Hemingway

“Published in 1936, Hemingway places Francis Macomber, a wealthy businessman, and his wife on a hunting safari in Africa. In this short story, they are guided in this excursion by a seasoned hunter, Robert Wilson. Macomber, the wealthy businessman, finds his courage tested multiple times, and his ability to manage his fear becomes the catalyst for three-way interactions about the meaning of work and gender roles. The three characters play off each other’s bases of power, and how we define meaning in daily contexts.

“This story reminds me of the ongoing discussion in contemporary society about ‘authenticity,’ and how that means different things at various points. How we make sense of our identity in a changing world is particularly salient, and how that identification influences our pertinent relationships.”

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

“Rachman weaves a set of interlocking narratives about the fates of workers in an English-language newspaper in Rome that is experiencing the decline of publishing. How workers make sense of this as it is happening is a powerful central theme. I also appreciated how Rachman has titled each chapter of the novel with a headline in the newspaper, and then explains through the actions of the workers how that headline came to be published. I appreciate the way that Rachman connects the products we consume, in this case media, with the people that produce those products.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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