Twelve Excellent Novels about the Business and Work World

First, before the list, two quotes. 

“The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.” – Confucius

“”The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.” – Charles Bukowski    

 “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut (1952) – A near-future where everything is made by robots or machines, eliminating the need for human workers.  Are we there yet? 

 “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis (1922)  –  Babbitt is his name and real estate sales is his game.  A realistic satire of a businessman and his city.  Is Zenith actually Minneapolis?

 “A Regular Guy” by Mona Simpson (1997) – A novel about a Silicon Valley entrepreneur written by Steven Jobs’ actual younger sister. 

 “A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers (2012) – Who knew that Saudis and Americans working together would be so funny? 

  “Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann (1901) –  a great classic novel about a wealthy German merchant family and their trade business (perhaps even better than ‘The Magic Mountain’). 

 “Germinal” by Emile Zola (1885) – A realistic hellish story about a coalminers’ strke in northern France.

 “Underground Time” by Delphine de Vigan (2012) – Office politics are not so nice when they move you to an office that shares a wall with the men’s bathroom. 

 “Something Happened” by Joseph Heller (1974) – A novel about a businessman by the author who invented the ‘Catch-22’ rules.

 “Gain” by Richard Powers (1998) –  The fictional corporate history of the Claire International chemical company and a present-day lawsuit brought by someone living near their factory. 

 “Moral Hazard” by Kate Jennings (2002) – A moving novel about a financial speechwriter on Wall Street written by a financial speechwriter on Wall Street.  

 “Factotum” by Charles Bukowski (1975) – a necessary corrective for anyone who thinks the work world is glamorous and exciting rather than what it really is.    See above.

 “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead (1999) – A novel about an elevator inspector who belongs to the ‘Intuitionist’ school of elevator inspecting rather than the ‘Empiricist’ school of elevator inspecting.

12 responses to this post.

  1. What a good idea to harvest them together like this! I’ve read four of them, most recently A Hologram for the King. Germinal is my favourite, though I enjoyed Buddenbrooks as well, and also Moral Hazard, a good thought-provoking novel. May I add in The Forsyte Saga, a British counterpart to Buddenbrooks? And also nearly all of Dickens’ novels, one way or another?


    • Hi Lisa,
      I’ve yet to attempt the Forsythe Saga, didn’t know it was much about business. Many of Dickens’ novels have scenes from factories and businesses in them, but couldn’t pin it down to one. Probably my number 13 would have been Theodore Dreiser’s ‘Trilogy of Desire’ (‘The Financier’, ‘The Titan’, and ‘The Stoic’)
      Kate Jennings is an Aussie, isn’t she? .


      • Hello again
        You’re right, The Forsyte Saga is only partly about business, but there’s a lot of talk about shares going up and down, and also marrying into or being excluded from the family business. Yes, Kate Jenning is Australian… but I think she was living in the US for a while.
        I really like Theodore Dreiser but I haven’t read that one yet.
        Just wondering, is there a John Steinbeck that features a business…. East of Eden maybe? It’s so long since I read it, I can’t really remember.


        • Hi Lisa,
          Yes, John Steinbeck, especially his novel ‘Cannery Row’ about the people working in the salmon fisheries in Monterey, California, would have fit right in. His novel Grapes of Wrath also is considered a ‘worker’ novel because it is about migrant farm workers coming from Oklahoma to California.
          I suppose ‘The Forsythe Saga’ is similar to ‘Buddenbrooks’ in that it is about a business family, but contains much else besides business.


          • Cannery Row, that’s the one! And that reminds me of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. That’s another one I read 30+ years ago, a brilliant book that has stayed with me after all these years. It’s not really about business, per se, rather an exposé of the working conditions of immigrants in the meat-packing industry in Chicago and how sharp business practices, especially in real estate, cruelled their lives.


  2. Excellent list!


  3. I’ve only read Germinal of the bunch, but it’s really wonderful that you’ve written up a list like this. A good reference for the future.


    • Thanks, Biblibio.
      At first I wasn’t sure I could find enough. Then I thought I could come up with 10, then finally went to 12, including two I’ve read and reviewed very recently. Now I think I could easily come up with twenty by including Balzac, Dickens, Steinbeck, Ferris, etc. There is also a short story collection by Harvey Swados called ‘On the Line’, stories about workers on the assembly line.


  4. Great list Tony. I’d have to add Bonfire of the vanities. And I’d also suggest Trollope’s The way we live now. But of course, not every book can make a list of 10!


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