An education in the humanities is not necessarily a death wish, unless you're planning to teach. Reading

Jane Austen

or memorizing the

Plantagenet

succession will endow you with the infallible secrets of business success. Don't you believe that? Neither do I, but a shameless number of books are peddling such literary nostrums.

There is always a market for panaceas. If you lack common sense, someone will sell you a fashionable substitute. Of course, psychologists pioneered the renting of wisdom. In the '80s, historians joined the bazaar, offering

The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun

and tutorials on how to be a samurai. Those books were bestsellers, although the lessons seemed lost in translation. For example, "hara-kiri" was usually interpreted as "golden parachute."

Now, starving English majors are promoting themselves as business consultants. In their efforts at alchemy, they have transmuted

Shakespeare's

plays into case studies in management. The Bard evidently was the primordial MBA.

According to the iambic parameters, a beleaguered CEO should rally his employees by reciting

Henry V's

address to his outnumbered soldiers at Agincourt:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother ...

Stirred by such speech, you might well overlook the fact that your newfound brother makes 300 times more than you, and that he is the buffoon who put the business in such a desperate plight. In fact, the battle of Agincourt was decided by French incompetence, not English poetry. Most business competitors are not so obligingly suicidal. Instead of fantasizing himself as

Henry V

, the floundering executive should wonder if his subordinates are reading

Macbeth

.

Nonetheless, if any of your business ventures involve murdering your nephews, disinheriting your only loyal child or practicing magic on a desert island, you might be tempted to read these business guides to Shakespeare. Here is one to avoid:

Shakespeare on Management

by Jay Shafritz. Professor Shafritz has simply compiled quotations for business occasions. For instance, if you have nothing to say at a conference, Shafritz can accommodate you with irrelevant eloquence. If anyone were to buy this subterfuge of a book, it would prove only "what fools these mortals be."

Shakespeare is not the only victim of managerial evaluation. It now seems that

The Ugly Duckling

was written by

Andersen Consulting

. Be warned against

Goldilocks on Management

by Gloria Gilbert Mayer and Thomas Mayer. The pair of consultants take 27 fairy tales and attempt to correlate them to business strategies. In fact, their premise is plausible. The maxims of folk tales may have more common sense than the mantras of business schools.

Unfortunately, the Mayers sabotage an intriguing idea with their feeble humor, dubious evidence and appalling taste. All of the tales have become updated parodies.

Goldilocks

is portrayed as a hotel consultant.

Rumpelstiltskin

is a commodities trader.

The Little Match Girl

is about poor marketing strategy, instead of an abused child who froze to death. Each story is recounted in a cutesy vein, then tenuously linked to a vague business case. The presumed lesson of Goldilocks is that "sales and negotiations must be carefully planned and implemented to be effective." Feel free to be bewildered. Perhaps the Mayers' effort should be compared to

The Emperor's New Clothes

. That was the story of two charlatans who peddled a transparent fraud.

If Shakespeare and

Hans Christian Andersen

can be exposed as MBAs,

Nicolo Machiavelli

certainly merits that incrimination. His treatise,

The Prince

, is a masterpiece of ruthless pragmatism and brazen cynicism. For five centuries, Machiavelli has been openly reviled and diligently heeded, which is exactly what Machiavelli would have done. Since modern business is no less cutthroat than Renaissance politics, the wisdom of the Florentine statesman could aptly be applied in the corporate boardroom. Unfortunately, Stanley Bing, in

What Would Machiavelli Do?

, treats Machiavelli as a joke.

The

Forbes

columnist offers punchlines rather than insights. He advises us to do whatever we want -- throw a tantrum, be obnoxious, be inane -- then claim Machiavelli as an excuse. The ideal reader for this book would be a precocious six-year-old: "Machiavelli made me break the lamp." "Machiavelli doesn't want me to brush my teeth."

Other than as a chic alibi, Machiavelli hardly appears in Bing's distended joke. The philosopher is never quoted and barely described. When Bing does offer a little historical context, he cannot even bother to be correct. Bing scrambles Renaissance figures, mistaking grandchildren for grandfathers. Imagine if you couldn't tell the difference between John Barrymore and Drew Barrymore; where the Medici are concerned, Bing cannot tell those Italians apart. Nor does he care. This book is meant to be a joke. While his basic premise is amusing, Bing has stretched a funny column into a tedious trifle.

How many other classic authors are targets for management books?

Franz Kafka's

satirical nightmares already are the basis of HMOs and Human Resources.

Leo Tolstoy

actually wrote management guides; he just distinguished them as novels.

War and Peace

breaks down to 150 pages of plot and 1,000 pages of advice. In

Anna Karenina

, Tolstoy interrupts an enjoyable tale of adultery to insert a 100-page treatise on farm management.

Some untenured Ph.D. soon will realize that

James Joyce

is a model for executive leadership. When you want to sound brilliant but have nothing to say, give a Joycean display of verbal pyrotechnics. Recite two puns in three languages in four words, and the world will be awed.

Err-sick carrion liaison

. (In English, Latin and Greek, that dubiously translates to "Lord, have mercy on Ireland.") The words may have no relevance or meaning, but genius is beyond coherence. At least, that is the Joycean stratagem.

Of course, the truly valuable self-help books would be the ones that Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Tolstoy read. They didn't read any? Well, there is your answer.

Eugene Finerman is a humorist, humanities jock and available sycophant. If you are a billionaire geek, Eugene would make a wonderful court jester and could help you to decide whether to hang the Hockney or the Caravaggio in the guest bathroom. (For God sakes, the Hockney, you plutocratic neanderthal.) Eugene welcomes your email and tribute.

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