A harrowing financial crash that rocked Wall Street and the world; a new product that had all the money and expertise of a Fortune 500 company behind it and still failed; a consideration of the way some people pay little or no income tax; a new office tool that revolutionized the way humans communicate; how the savings of thousands of innocent investors were imperiled by greed and hubris; and the heroic efforts needed to  rescue the British sterling pound from the brink of devaluation.

These incidents happened more than 50 years ago, and yet they suggest a certain timelessness. Just three examples: The innocent continue to be bilked by con artists (see the massive Bernard Madoff scandal); a financial crisis can still bring world economies to their knees (the 2008 meltdown), and new technologies introduced over the last 25 years have profoundly altered our behavior (personal computers, smart phones, social media, et al).

From 1959 through 1969, John Brooks (1920-1993), a New Yorker magazine staff writer, chronicled the worlds of business and finance, which were compiled under the title “Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales From the World of Wall Street.’’ OpenRoad Integrated Media, New York, this month rereleased the popular book, which has won rave reviews from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: “It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,” he said. “I’ll send you my copy.” I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks,” Gates wrote on his blog, www.gatesnotes.com.

“Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy).’’

The tales in “Business Adventures’’ are illuminating, cautionary, less than reverent and highly entertaining. And as Gates says on his blog, “It’s certainly true that many of the particulars of business have changed. But the fundamentals have not. Brooks’s deeper insights about business are just as relevant today as they were back then.’’
“The Fluctuation’’ looks at the market’s wild ride between Monday, May 28, 1962, and Thursday, May 31, 1962, when the Dow Jones average of 30 leading industrials dropped more than at any other time since the great stock market crash of Oct. 28, 1929, and its volume of trading was the seventh greatest in its history. By May 31, the volume was back up to the fifth greatest high in the market’s history and the Dow Jones’ average was about where it had started four days earlier.

Brooks captures minutiae that carries the story. We learn that when the stock exchange tape, which “runs at (a) maximum speed of five hundred characters per minute,’’ slowed down, it meant that “the machine was simply unable to keep abreast of what was going on, so fast were trades being made.’’ Compared to the current era of nanosecond, high-frequency trading, the speed of trading 50 years ago was conducted at a snail’s pace. But Brooks, caught up in the drama of the moment, makes us feel the nerve-shattering ups and downs of those four days.

In “The Fate of the Edsel,’’ Brooks provides pungent character portraits of the Ford Motor Company executives who made the decisions about how to make a car named after Henry Ford’s son into something new and exciting and then how to sell that concept to Americans. Ford President Henry Ford II, son of Edsel, grandson of Henry, gave his subordinates free rein to make decisions on the ill-fated automobile (its production was halted after its second year). Despite the debacle, Ford II continued to support his executives, an admirable trait in business.

In “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox,’’ Brooks explains how a clever idea became a monolith. Brooks is prescient: He sees the threat posed by easily duplicated materials to the sanctity of an original, and to the livelihood of the originals’ creators.

In  “Stockholder Season,’’ Brooks goes on the road to attend annual meetings of publicly held companies. By the late 1950s, many of these companies had moved their meetings away from New York and Philadelphia, where vocal shareholders were guaranteed to ask difficult questions, to far-flung cities that drew small numbers of usually compliant investors. But the CEOs and bean counters were one-upped: “Professional stockholders,’’ informed stockholders holding either large numbers of stock or proxies or both, went on the road and make nuisances of themselves at meetings, much to Brooks’ amusement.

And in the sobering “One Free Bite,’’ a well-intentioned, perhaps naïve chemical engineer who helps develop the first space suits, learns that changing jobs within the same industry that has closely guarded formulas and patents is fraught with peril and litigation.

There are seven more pithy tales here, which as Gates aptly observes, have the immediacy of today’s news.

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales From the World of Wall Street
By John Brooks
OpenRoad Integrated Media, $16.99.

Eleanor O'Sullivan is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for USA Today and Gannett newspapers. She can be reached at [email protected]