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REVIEW : A Good Year for Books on Business : Publishing: It may have been a tough time on the bottom line, but it certainly gave authors something to write about.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Langstaff writes frequently for Publishers Weekly and is working on a novel about Emily Dickinson

If 1991 was a sour year for business, it was a pretty good year for business books.

A strong category for publishers since the late 1970s, U.S. publishers this year put out nearly 2,000 business titles (more, if you include economics and related fields). Though sales were flat, more titles were published.

Better yet, quality remained strong. Here’s a highly subjective list of the year’s best business books in an assortment of fields.

For a gripping narrative of epic greed, it’s hard to beat “Den of Thieves” by James B. Stewart (Simon & Schuster, $25). The army of readers who put this latest book by the front-page editor of the Wall Street Journal on bestseller lists are on to something.

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Not only is it a riveting tale of how the mighty are fallen, but in limning the securities transgressions and barn-size egos of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Martin Siegel and Dennis Levine, it lets us feel superior in our relative poverty. Stewart gives the chilling sense of being inside deviant minds run amok.

For handy fun you can dip into a few pages at a time before bed, reach for Michael Lewis’ “The Money Culture” (W. W. Norton Co., $19.95). These vivid articles gathered from the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere shed bright--if not very flattering--light on the ethos from which the book takes its title. Lewis wrote last year’s blockbuster “Liar’s Poker,” and this one is just as dismayingly funny.

But it’s light reading next to Daniel Yergin’s sweeping work, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” (Simon & Schuster, $24.95). “In the twentieth century, oil, supplemented by natural gas, toppled King Coal from his throne as the power source for the industrial world. . . . Today, we are so dependent on oil, and oil is so embedded in our daily doings, that we hardly stop to comprehend its pervasive significance,” writes Yergin, whose fine history of Hydrocarbon Man is already a classic.

For something broadly prescriptive, consider “Short Term America: The Causes and Cures of Our Business Myopia” by Michael T. Jacobs (Harvard Business School Press, $24.95). It’s a well-reasoned call to action for shareholders and management to tackle what many thinkers consider our biggest single economic problem. Jacobs convincingly describes the Japanese and German systems of corporate governance, which often put the United States at a disadvantage as the world quickly becomes one marketplace.

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If U.S. shareholders (and lenders) had greater trust in and insight into the doings of corporate managements, Jacobs argues, quarterly results would matter less, securities would no longer be traded like commodities, and America would be on equal footing with the competition.

“Quality or Else: The Revolution in World Business” by Lloyd Dobyns and Clare Crawford-Mason (Houghton Mifflin, $21.95) addresses the same concerns in everyday language but focuses on quality as the overriding issue that American business must address today. A companion volume to the IBM-sponsored public television series, these two veteran journalists take an empirical, rather than theoretical, approach to the subject and rely heavily on interviews with shirt-sleeves managers struggling to create quality programs in their businesses. These two are the same people responsible for the groundbreaking 1980 NBC documentary “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” Their discovery of W. Edwards Deming, the American guru of postwar Japanese business, brought him belatedly to the attention of the American public. “Quality or Else” is passionately argued, too.

“The One Minute Manager Builds High Performance Teams” by Kenneth Blanchard, Donald Carew and Eunice Parisi-Carew (William Morrow, $18) offers a practical course in translating to the American business setting the successful Japanese emphasis on teamwork. Blanchard is the co-author of the wildly popular “One Minute Manager” series. This one is written in the same breezy, anecdotal fashion and is a handy, aphoristic reference for what promises to be a major issue for U.S. managers in the coming decade. The age of hierarchical, authoritarian management seems to be over.

For readers interested in personal investment, two 1991 books rise to the top. Free of jargon and academic analysis, both are eminently readable.

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“The 100 Best Stocks to Own in America,” second edition, by Gene Walden (Dearborn Financial, $22.95) is a conveniently organized, up-to-date overview of the nation’s best stocks based on financial performance. Although social responsibility is not included in the rating schemata, corporate behavior on the environment, South Africa, tobacco and so forth is discussed when such information is available.

A word of caution: Since the first edition was published in 1989, 35 companies have fallen off of the list and have been replaced by new stars.

Offering a more comprehensive approach to playing the market is a title that has been justifiably popular with stock hounds this year, “Trader Vic--Methods of a Wall Street Master” by Victor Sperandeo with T. Sullivan Brown (Wiley, $24.95). This is not another book on how to beat the system, but an engaging and irreverent overview of the factors that must be taken into consideration to invest wisely.

Sperandeo knows personally where of he speaks and has written a book to provide others with certain basic tools to make a meaningful assault on market opportunities. He claims an impressive annual nominal rate of return of 70.7% for a 10-year period (1978-1987), during which the S&P; 500 only racked up an 11.5% return--and claims not to have had a losing year in that stretch. Of special interest is the second part of the book, “The Commitment to Make It Happen: Emotional Discipline.”

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“Know thyself,” he says.

In a class by itself and worthy of note is “Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice” (Ballantine, $20) by Dennis Kimbro and Napoleon Hill. Contrary to what its title may imply, this is not hucksterism between covers.

Instead, it addresses the special obstacles and unique opportunities confronting black entrepreneurs and managers. It is serious, practical and motivational, peppered with success stories of the well-known--e.g., Wally (Famous) Amos--to the unknown, such as Alonzo F. Herndon. American blacks have more opportunity than ever before, Kimbro says, and his goal is to show how to take hold of these opportunities. As a black man writing for blacks, Kimbro is no-nonsense and convincing.

A 1991 business book of use to line managers and small-business owners of every race is “301 Great Management Ideas from America’s Most Innovative Small Companies,” introduction by Tom Peters and edited by Sara P. Nobel (Inc. Publishing, $12.95 paper). Culled from the pages of Inc. Magazine’s “Hands On, a Manager’s Notebook” feature, this little book gathers pithy, memorable and provocative “ideas based on real company efforts that have worked.”

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Oddly, what is perhaps the biggest business story of the past year or two is missing from the book list. While the S&L; debacle has made many a front page, the definitive book remains to be written, as far as both reviewers and the public are concerned. A basketful of S&L; books last year was probably topped by Martin Mayer’s “The Greatest Ever Bank Robbery” (Scribners), which the cognoscenti agreed was workmanlike but uninspired. The paperback will be out this spring.

This year has seen a few weak S&L; books not worth mentioning. It’s too bad. Putting aside for the moment the very real suffering involved, what a great story remains to be told.


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