“My goal in reading a book is to entertain myself and perhaps to learn.
You won’t read much unless what you read is enjoyable for you.”
— Don Graham
In 1973, Warren Buffett famously began investing in the stock of the newly public Washington Post. Watergate was on, the stock market was crashing, and the Post, led by Katherine Graham, was a wonderful company selling at a cheap price.
Over time, Mrs. Graham would pass the CEO mantle to her son, Don Graham. With Buffett’s board level influence, Graham would become one of the most successful and admired CEO’s in the media business, financially and editorially.
While other papers were busy buying up news or television properties one after another, mostly financed with debt, Buffett encouraged Graham to stick to his knitting. And so when media properties (including the Post) began to rapidly lose their value in the 1990’s and 2000’s thanks to the Internet, the Post survived intact. (Helped along by the shrewd purchase of Kaplan Inc.)
The Grahams’ reign running the Post was so successful that it was later profiled in The Outsiders, a book by Columbia’s William Thorndike which showed how a group of “unconventional” CEOs generated way above average shareholder returns through smart capital allocation and decentralized operating management.
Graham, now the CEO of Graham Holdings and the lead independent director of Facebook, seems woefully understudied as an operator and a human being. But we do have one window into the man: His book recommendations.
Graham actively answers questions on Quora, mostly about books, so we went through and collected some of his thoughts.
The long time head of a major media organization is someone who must, by the nature of their work, be broadly educated and broadly wise. And his interest in books shows it: Graham is clearly a fan of the classics and of biography and history. (Not altogether surprising for a man who was part of the Pulitzer Prize board for many years.)
Among his answers are his favourite fiction and non-fiction books and the book that will stay with him forever. (One obvious choice would be his mother’s wonderful memoir.)
First, his response to a 14-year old asking which books he should read, to which Graham gave a wonderful answer:
I would—for a lifetime—think first about “what will I enjoy reading,” and only second about “what is good for me.” If you like novels, I’d read novels. If you like biographies, I’d read biographies. If you like science fiction, mysteries, or science books, I’d read those. But read the best, and keep asking what that is.
What is that one book that will stay with you forever?
The Plays of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare (“They are incomparable.”)
What is Your Favorite Non-Fiction book?
The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (Also his answer to: What is the most instructive biography you’ve ever read?)
The Civil War by Shelby Foote (“The greatest work of American history.”)
What is your Favorite Fiction book?
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Which book are you currently reading?
Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore
What was the last book you read?
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo (“I would not only recommend it; I’d say it is my favorite contemporary American novel.”)
Who was the most peace-oriented US President?
Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas (“If the subject of your question is of great interest to you, I strongly recommend reading it.”
Can you suggest a book about a survivor of an extreme experience?
The Man Who Stayed Behind by Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett (“As a discharged GI in China with leftist sympathies, he hitchhiked across China to Yenan, lived in the caves with Mao Zedong and the whole leadership, and became Mao’s translator, among other things.”)
What are the best literary nonfiction books about the Gilded Age?
The Robber Barons by Matthew Josephson (“The classic history of this aspect of the age.”)
Jim Fisk by W.A. Swanberg and The Murder of Jim Fisk by H. W. Brands (“Both excellent.”)
What are some books that were well-written and popular for awhile but are now largely forgotten?
Second Readings by Jonathan Yardley
A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein
What books should the privileged read in order to gain perspective and empathy for the underprivileged?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo (“It is a great, great book.”)
What are the best books written about the Supreme Court?
John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith
The Supreme Court by William Rehnquist
What are some good books to help one understand communism?
The Great Terror by Robert Conquest. (“Almost unbearable in its chapter-by-chapter description of life under Stalin’s rule.”)
Gulag by Anne Applebaum
What book would you recommend for becoming a “gentleman”?
Letters to His Son on Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman by Lord Chesterfield
Which U.S. President was the best writer?
Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865 by Abraham Lincoln (“There’s only one choice.”)