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Poor Richard's Legacy.

Poor Richard's Legacy Poor Richard's Legacy. Peter Baida. William Morrow, $22.95. Beware of an author who begins a sweeping history of American business and the literature surrounding it by writing about his own nightmares. In the first chapter of this book, Peter Baida lets us in on the stirrings of his subconscious while he attended the Wharton School of Business. It seems that Baida used to dream about stern old Benjamin Franklin and high-spirited young Huck Finn wrestling with his soul. This is reason enough for most of us to place the book gently back upon the shelf and congratulate ourselves for avoiding another dumb read. After all, Baida's hero, Ben Franklin, told us that "Time is Money," and few of us can afford to waste either.

Well, you probably ought to take it back off the shelf. Poor Richard's Legacy is a damn useful book, a kind of Cliffs Notes of business history and thinking. Baida draws from the classics to present brief biographies of personages ranging from John Jacob Astor to ad man David Ogilvy; he gives equal space to what he calls "dissenting voices," antibusiness thinkers from Henry David Thoreau to the muckrakers to Ralph Nader.

Who will want to read it? Anyone who reads the business pages. Most business journalism seems so shallow because, although many of the writers know the numbers, few have gone beyond them to learn the history that underlies the event they write about. A case in point: The late Malcolm Forbes's 1989 birthday bash was covered as if nothing so outrageous had ever happened. The writers could have harkened back to Alva Vanderbilt's $250,000 ball in 1883 or the formal dinners that Newporters threw for their dogs at the turn of the century.

Any book that tries to do so much in so little space is going to have failings. There is of course the sin of silly writing, such as in this gem: "The deficit, it seems safe to say, is a bomb that might or might not explode." More troubling, Baida's reliance on books and clippings instead of his own digging sometimes leads him astray. In a long wet-kiss chapter about IBM, he retells stories of IBM's relentless rise to business dominance without mentioning the company's recent struggles to hold its place in the personal computer revolution, with most of the sales now going to clone makers. In its traditional profit line--mainframe computers--IBM is losing ground to rivals like Amdahl and Fujitsu.

It should come as no surprise that Baida ends the book with a look at American business's comeuppance at the hands of the Japanese. Why are they winning? Baida asks. Japan's love affair with the Franklinesque virtues of thrift and hard work has brought it to the fore. "If we continue to squander our inheritance," Baida concludes, "our most precious bequest to our grandchildren may well be a copy of Poor Richard's Almanack, to show them where we went wrong."
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Author:Schwartz, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Words:495
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