Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

From what I gather, Barbarians at the Gate is something of a business non-fiction classic, though it wasn't immediately obvious to me why. I bought the Kindle version so I had no idea that it's actually almost five hundred pages long - way longer than most books in the genre. Apparently, it's something of a precursor to Too Big to Fail, which I loved, so I decided to let go of my initial suspicions and gave it a try.

Barbarians at the Gate is slow off the starting line. The background and stories of all involved are given first, and for those not familiar with what actually happened, this can be a chore. The back stories are interesting (and relevant) so you shouldn't skip them either. Luckily, the material is well written and there never seems to be anything completely superfluous in the text. Some of the wording is a bit heavy-handed for my taste, but it doesn't disrupt the experience. It just sounds a bit more 80's.

What I love about Barbarians at the Gate is that there is no preaching tone, no attempts at forcing a point of view. Generally, there is no other agenda than to tell an involving story without leaving out any important details. Readers are allowed to make their own decisions; whether to hate or simply dislike Ross Johnson, a main character. The story is about a corporate takeover, but there are so many other elements that it's difficult to keep score. There is the greed of Wall Street, the punishing competitiveness of the modern white man. The foolhardiness of past corporate America, coming to grips with a new decade.

Barbarians is the type of book, I guess, that gets read in business classrooms across the world. And in a way, I imagine that I would find it tiresome, if it were an assignment. The heft is discouraging, and the dozens of characters are hard to keep track of. But at the end of the day, most classroom staples (Catch-22, Moby Dick and so on) are classics for a reason. It might not be obvious immediately, but their fame is almost always well deserved.

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