The Harvard Business School Faculty Summer Reader 2024


As the vacation season looms, Harvard Business School faculty members share recommendations for a little light reading. Spoiler alert: Lessons in Chemistry tops two of their beach-read lists.

For those whose brains can’t—or won’t—turn off, HBS faculty also suggest some of their favorite business and academic tomes. Their favorites hit some of the year’s biggest themes, from artificial intelligence (AI) to racial equity to climate change.

Julia Austin: Humans and tech, and the ultrarich of New York

One of my favorite books so far this year has been Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. It is a collection of work from 90 brilliant writers who each cover a five-year period of that 400-year span through a variety of historical essays, short stories, poems, letters, and speeches. I love the different perspectives on these pivotal moments in history, including untold stories of ordinary people who aided in the transformation of legal systems and policies in the US. It is both heartbreaking and heart opening. And while the book contains wonderful imagery to support the writings, I recommend listening to the audio version, which is a special experience as each of the 90 stories are narrated by an extraordinary cast of voices.

I recently completed Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21
Lessons for the 21st Century
, all by Yuval Noah Harari, which all tackle our history as a species to help us understand who we are and what made us this way and predicts where, as humans and technology evolves, we are headed. Given the speed by which AI, biological, chemical, and other contemporary research is progressing these days, this series is very thought provoking and gave me a deeper perspective on not just how, but why humans are driven to evolve.

For a great beach read, I found Lessons in Chemistry not only entertaining for its sharp wit and excellent storytelling, but it reminded me of our progress (or lack thereof, in some cases) in the past century towards equal rights in a predominantly patriarchal world. As is common, the book is much better than the TV series!

Next up for me this summer is The Goldfinch, an epic tale about a young boy grieving the loss of his mother while learning about the art world and the ultra-rich of New York City. I have been wanting to read this book forever and am excited to immerse myself in the story. Meanwhile, ever-present this summer will be Thinking Like Your Editor as I embark on completing my own book, After the Idea (due in the spring of 2025), to offer timeless and practical guidance to entrepreneurs and is based on the course I teach at HBS, Startup Operations.

Julia Austin is a senior lecturer of business administration and the faculty co-chair of the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.

Jeff Bussgang: Relationships still matter

I am reading David Brooks’ new book, How to Know a Person. In our current age of AI and omnipresent screens and distractions, it is more important than ever to develop the essential human skill of knowing and caring about other people. The habit of getting out of your own head and truly paying attention to others is something that I am aiming to both internalize for myself and impart even more on my students in the coming school year.

Jeff Bussgang is a senior lecturer of business administration at HBS.

Arthur Brooks: Understanding dissent, happiness, and meaning

My own research centers around the science of happiness—psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and the like—which keeps me constantly reading academic papers. However, this summer I want to delve into why, exactly, America’s conception of happiness has changed in the last few centuries. I have just begun to read The Pursuit of Happiness by Jeffrey Rosen, a constitutional scholar, who argues that the founders equated happiness with the cultivation of virtue. So far, it’s very compelling—and I’m eager to see how it will inform my thinking on the subject.

This summer I want to read Confessions of Heretic by the late British philosopher Roger Scruton. As American campuses have witnessed turmoil over the past year, it’s my view that we ought to more deeply engage with a diverse range of opinions. Scruton’s Confessions is a provocative book. I probably won’t agree with all he has to say. But that’s part of the adventure.

In April, I returned from my sixth visit to Dharamsala, India, where my team had the privilege to spend time with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. We have some exciting projects ahead of us, which will explore how spirituality can relieve suffering. Before the trip I re-read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, a wonderful primer on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. I recommend it to anyone who is searching for meaning amid darkness.

Arthur Brooks is a Professor of Management Practice at HBS and the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter: The hot and the cool

As summer gets hotter, I will cool off in the shade with books related to my current work on leadership strategies for climate action in cities and regions. I will read John Doerr’s Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now, wanting to know what one of the world’s leading venture capitalists recommends.

I will re-read Robert Caro’s classic book, The Power Broker, about how Robert Moses transformed the infrastructure of New York City, and how long-range decisions can have enduring unintended consequences. I will dip into Solved: How the World’s Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis by David Miller, while being torn between optimism about possibilities and awareness of how much is still to be done and wondering how to enlist the business community in leading change.

Eric Klinenberg’s 2020 shows how ordinary people are affected by poor macro decisions as he tells the story of the pandemic in New York City through the stories of individuals, including heroic educators, who suffered from the chaotic US response compared to that of other nations. In his classic book Heat Wave, Klinenberg shows how strong social ties helped people in some communities in Chicago survive the deadly climate crisis while others succumbed.

Cities can’t cope with heat waves or water woes (droughts or heavy flooding) without attention to the natural environment surrounding them. I plan to augment my case research on the Miccosukee Tribe’s efforts to save the Everglades, which serves as a watershed for urban counties in South Florida, with Justin Farrell’s books on conflicts over land and natural resources in the America West, including The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict, and Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. These are the tip of the iceberg (forgive the bad metaphor) for understanding the struggles to control important natural resources.

Late Harvard Professor Peter Rogers’ and ALI Fellow Susan Leal’s Running Out of Water is a prescient warning. To add enlightening entertainment, I will re-watch the classic film Chinatown about California’s water wars, including conspiracies to dry up the land so it could be bought cheaply.

For lighter reading, I will turn to my perennial favorites: gripping novels about the other kind of cases, legal cases, and the other kind of problem-solving, catching villains. I recommend John Lescroart’s books featuring an ensemble group of San Francisco friends alternating front stage roles on their lives’ journeys. For southern flavor, James Lee Burke’s novels about Dave Robicheaux render the interior life of a gentle giant battling injustice. Patricia Cornwell’s mysteries star Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a woman of science solving crimes.

But the very best woman of science appears in my overall reading recommendation: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. This entertaining novel is both funny and tragic, telling the story of an ignored genius woman chemist in the early 1960s. Of course, depending on your feelings about traditional gender roles, Lessons in Chemistry might just heat you up again.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at HBS, founding chair of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, and former chief editor of Harvard Business Review.

DJ DiDonna: Yoga retreat recommendations and more

I’m in the middle of writing a book on my research—and personal experience—on sabbaticals. One of the best academic-influenced popular press nonfiction works in the realm of job switching and personal growth is former HBS and current INSEAD Professor Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity. It’s one of the first books I recommend when folks want a more research-based book on career and life transitions.

I recently completed a writing residency at Santosha at Hillholm Estate in Maine if you’re looking for an unfussy yoga retreat in the woods. One of the other writers recommended Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. After I realized I’d read his music criticism work in the New Yorker, I’m also very excited to dig into his ode to one of my favorite groups: Go Ahead in The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.

One of my favorite books I’ve read in recent memory was Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera. It’s a fictionalized account of a border crossing from Mexico into the United States and back, but it’s also some of the most concise and expert prose I’ve ever read. It’s a short, beautiful, and devastating read.

If you’re looking for courage to embark on a big change in your life, I’d recommend The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope. In the book, Cope uses the Bhagavad Gita as a framing for life; Cope also teaches at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a retreat center in Massachusetts.

DJ DiDonna is a senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at HBS.

Amy Edmondson: From character lessons to the great mysteries

I recommend Character: What Contemporary Leaders Can Teach Us about Building a More Just, Prosperous, and Sustainable Future. Character has never mattered more than it does today, in our uncertain high-stakes world. This thoughtful book explains character in a refreshing way and shows how to develop it. Its beautifully written case studies bring its ideas to life. The book is grounded in research and full of actionable advice related to recognizing and developing the character that is so desperately needed in leadership roles across sectors.

Revisit anything Agatha Christie wrote. She is more brilliant than you remember. I’m immersed in the Body in the Library.

For serious fiction, I finished Matrix by Lauren Groff, a captivating novel that opens in the year 1158 and delves into themes of power, feminism, and medieval history. The book explores the journey of Marie de France as she overcomes the constraints of a patriarchal society. Groff’s writing is rich and immersive, drawing you in with vivid descriptions and character development.

Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS.

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.

Illustration created by HBSWK using asset generated with Adobe Firefly, an artificial intelligence tool.



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