Survival Guide: Jonathan Yardley, book critic and columnist for the Washington Post

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post columnist and book critic

Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Yardley appreciates a well-written book. Finding one, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. "A great many people whose books are published can't write English," said Yardley, who started reviewing books nearly 40 years ago as the book editor for the Greensboro Daily News in North Carolina. He spoke with Washington Technology Editor Steve LeSueur about the books he would recommend reading -- and those he would not.

WT: What one book would you recommend to Washington Technology readers?.

Yardley: I think the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude." I don't believe there are any computers in there, and there's not any high tech, either. But the whole world is somehow contained within the approximately 400 pages of that novel.

WT: What do you mean when you say that the whole world is in that book?

Yardley: William Faulkner, who had a great influence on Garcia Marquez, said he had tried throughout all his many books to "put the world on the head of a pin." What he meant was to bring all of human existence into the pages of a book, into one little place. He also called Yoknapatawpha County, his fictitious Mississippi County, his "postage stamp of native soil." He was talking about bringing the universe into one little place. That's what Garcia Marquez did in that book. I think anybody who fancies himself or herself a literate person of our time and who has not read that book cannot make that claim.

WT: Would you recommend any business-related books?

Yardley: Jean Strouse's biography of J.P. Morgan that was published a couple of years ago would be very useful reading for somebody in business. Morgan did many things that were very good for his country, and he did them out of an obligation for his country. He did a lot of bad things, too. But there is good reason to believe that he brought the country almost single handedly through financial panics, and that he strengthened the country's economic structure, and he did this not solely for personal gain.

His story is a useful reminder that those to whom the gift of money-making and empire building have been given have obligations that go beyond themselves and their corporations.

WT: What about self-help business books?

Yardley: I don't read self-help business books, and I think people who do read them are wasting their time. There is an inherently false promise in these books, whether the advice is good or bad, that you can be like ... Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump or Bill Gates. They can tell us how they did it, but they can't make us do it. And reading their words is not going to make us one bit better at what we do. It's not going to turn our company into Microsoft or GE or whatever.

It doesn't hurt to read success stories and get counsel from the successful, but they work because they have some kind of touch that almost transcends ordinary humanity. Warren Buffett can tell you how he does it, but it's not going to give you that gut instinct that tells Buffett which stock to buy and which stock to ignore. It's a kind of genius ... a God-given gift. We don't have that instinct.

WT: How has the Internet changed the nature of communication and writing skills?

Yardley: The Internet is really a medium of words. E-mail and all of the stuff we can pull up, we read. The ability to communicate in a lucid and understandable way may be even more important now, because communication is so instantaneous and widespread. Not so long ago, you would receive a letter in the mail and have ample time to ponder over it before sitting down at your typewriter or speaking to your secretary and sending a reply. Now it's all bing, bing, bing, bing, bing.

One of the very disturbing things to me about the Internet -- and e-mail most particularly -- is the sloppiness with which people simply fling words onto the screen. When you do things at great speed and don't think them through, [when] you're just slapping words down on paper and then hitting that send button, the potential for lack of clarity, lack of subtlety and for misunderstanding is very high.

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