In 1969, John Brooks published “Business Adventures,” his collection of New Yorker business stories—“Twelve classic tales from the worlds of Wall Street and the modern American corporation.” Now, forty-five years later, Bill Gates, in the Wall Street Journal, is calling it his “favorite business book.” (He says it’s Warren Buffett’s favorite business book, too.) It’s easy to see why. Brooks, who wrote for the magazine for more than thirty years, approached business in an unusual way. He had an eye for the technical details that mattered to insiders, but the sensibility of a broad-minded cultural critic.
“Business Adventures” went out of print in the seventies, but it’s coming back into print this year. Gates is sharing one of the book’s chapters, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,” on his Web site. (“The headline alone belongs in the Journalism Hall of Fame,” Gates writes.) First published in the magazine in 1967, Brooks’s Profile of Xerox tells the story of the technologists who took enormous risks to create the Xerox machine. (Many people at Xerox poured their life savings into the R. & D. effort.) It’s full of insights about the fraught business of invention. It has also, with time, become a window onto the past: it documents particulars of technological history that might otherwise have been forgotten. Here’s Brooks describing an early Xerox machine, the 914:
Technologically, the 914 is so complex (more complex, some Xerox salesmen insist, than an automobile) that it has an annoying tendency to go wrong, and consequently Xerox maintains a field staff of thousands of repairmen who are presumably ready to answer a call on short notice. The most common malfunction is a jamming of the supply of copy paper, which is rather picturesquely called a “mispuff,” because each sheet of paper is raised into position to be inscribed by an interior puff of air, and the malfunction occurs when the puff goes wrong. A bad mispuff can occasionally put a piece of the paper in contact with hot parts, igniting it and causing an alarming cloud of white smoke to issue from the machine; in such a case, the operator is urged to do nothing, or, at most, to use a small fire extinguisher that is attached to it, since the fire burns itself out comparatively harmlessly if left alone, whereas a bucket of water thrown over a 914 may convey potentially lethal voltages to its metal surface.
“I was frightened of it at first,” one Xerox “operator” tells Brooks. “The Xerox men say, ‘If you’re frightened of it, it won’t work,’ and that’s pretty much right. It’s a good scout; I’m fond of it now.”
Over at the Journal, you can watch a video of the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik—along with many others, including Warren Buffett—talking about Brooks. And, here on our site, we’ve unlocked a number of Brooks’s classic stories for your weekend reading:
“A Corner in Piggly Wiggly,” June 6, 1959. On the life of Clarence Saunders, Piggly Wiggly’s founder.
“The Edsel,” November 26, 1960. The story behind Ford’s ill-fated car. (Part Two.)
“Privateer,” May 21, 1979. On Juan March, a predatory Spanish financier known as “the last pirate of the Mediterranean.” (Part Two.)
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