Looking for more retrospective company disaster books
July 14, 2019 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I've discovered there's a particular type of story I'm drawn to and would like to find more books like this, but it's quite specific.

The rough idea is a true, retrospective story about a disaster caused by a company and what the fallout was. Here are some perfect examples:

- Radium Girls, which is about companies that hired young women to work dangerously with radium, how the radium made them sick, and the women's efforts to sue the companies/people responsible
- Bad Blood, which is about Theranos, a tech startup that was meant to be selling ground breaking blood testing technology but lied about the tech and did a lot of dodgy stuff to raise money and stay alive
- Chernobyl, which is a TV series but otherwise fits perfectly into this pattern. It's about the Chernobyl disaster, the efforts to contain and fix it, the effects on various people involved, and the eventual fallout

All of these stories work through the disasters chronologically, and are nonfiction.

Do you know any more books like these? I'm open to TV as well, but mainly looking for books. Thanks!
posted by bellebethcooper to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Not a book, but you might like The Brink Podcast . It talks about the stories that lead each featured company to the ‘brink’ of failure, and how it either ended them or how they recovered. Theranos is covered of course but also companies like Radio Shack, Kodak, Toys R Us and other companies that didn’t fail but came darn close or are now only a shadow of what they once were.
posted by cgg at 8:25 PM on July 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Eric Schlosser's Command and Control (where the 'company' is the United States Strategic Air Command).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:38 PM on July 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Similar, but more about this happening from the POV of an individual within the company—the book The Informant! by Kurt Eichenwald (about price fixing at Archer Daniels Midland) and the movie The Insider (Russell Crowe’s best performance, playing an employee trying to blow the whistle on Big Tobacco). Both nonfiction.
posted by sallybrown at 8:43 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Start with this Atlantic article about the catastrophic 1957 plutonium fire at Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant just outside of Denver.

I think there are a couple of books which are mentioned in the Wikipedia entries about it and the subsequent 1969 fire.
posted by jamjam at 8:58 PM on July 14, 2019

Neither book nor TV, but this question made me think of the This American Life episode "Human Error in Volatile Situations" - specifically the 2nd act, which I now realise draws heavily on "Command and Control", mentioned above.
posted by Cheese Monster at 9:30 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're defining catastrophes generously (as I think you are, from including Bad Blood), you might like The Smartest Guys In The Room (Enron) and Fool's Gold (2007).
posted by praemunire at 9:57 PM on July 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Big Short by Michael Lewis is about the 2008 financial collapse. It's told from the point of view of the people who were on the "right side" of that one but I think it fits the bill--front row view of a massive scale collapse.
posted by mark k at 10:01 PM on July 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

The book Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald (one of his other books is also mentioned above) about the collapse of Enron is quite good.
posted by RichardP at 10:41 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

And the Band Played On - the Reagan administration failing in its response to AIDS
The Boy Kings - Facebook
Five Days at Memorial - a New Orleans hospital after Katrina
Full Body Burden - Rocky Flats, mentioned above
Hatching Twitter - self-explanatory
posted by rdc at 10:54 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding Command and Control, but, uh, good luck sleeping after. Union Carbide/Bhopal came immediately to mind; I haven't yet read Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, but it's on my list and seems to hit some of your criteria.

William Langewiesche might not be exactly what you're looking for, but his longform articles on aviation and maritime disasters, and what led to them, can be compelling as hell, and might be worth a look.

I also wonder if you might also have luck with this from the other direction, e.g., looking for notorious labor/corporate/industrial disasters or crimes, and then poking around Goodreads or Amazon for books about them. This Business History list looks pretty disaster-heavy, though more on the Theranos end of the spectrum than the Chernobyl end.

Thanks for this question, I've already added a bunch to my to-read/listen list.
posted by jameaterblues at 10:57 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

How about the story of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in "Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank That Broke Britain" - from one Amazon review:
"An extremely detailed account of how an institution that was a paragon of Scottish conservative thrift was changed into an un-regulated financial 'machine' of individual and corporate greed, unbounded egos, and a 'screw the punter' mentality that changed the face of British banking forever. ...Reading this heavy-weight tomb was a challenge but if you want an insight into the world of international banking, financial institutions and the politics before, during and after the financial crash of 2008 from a UK perspective then this the first book you should read."
posted by ewan at 4:01 AM on July 15, 2019

I liked Bad Blood and think Deep Down Dark fits into the same genre. Great investigation of the Chilean mine disaster, the company's role, the organization of the rescue effort, and the experiences of the men in the mine. Sometimes it's called The 33 because that's the movie's name.
posted by lilac girl at 4:49 AM on July 15, 2019

Three similar-but-not-quite perfect fits are:
Young Men and Fire - A crew of fifteen of the United States Forest Service's elite airborne firefighters stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Two hours after their jump, all but three of these men were dead or mortally burned.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster - Jon Krakauer, standing on the summit of Mt. Everest, saw nothing that "suggested that a murderous storm was bearing down." He was wrong. The storm claimed five lives and left countless more--including Krakauer's--in guilt-ridden disarray.

A long-form article, not a book, but We’re getting wildly differing assessments is a SCOTUSBlog minute-by-minute account of how/why news organizations reported different conclusions to the ACA ruling.

All are deeply thorough non-fiction accounts that delve into how organizational cultures and communications failings exacerbated disaster.
posted by matrixclown at 6:20 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 - such a good book about this messy thing that happened and the messy way the company responsible handled it.
The Day the Earth Caved In by Joan Quigley about the Centralia mine fires

I don't remember which book I read about the Johnstown Flood, but they are all pretty similar, there was a company that botched a thing and a lot of people died and there was some remediation and legal changes as a result.
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 AM on July 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two that are not quite "by a company" but may have what you're looking for

The Big Burn and The Worst Hard Time both by Timothy Egan. The first is about a huge forest fire that raged through Montana mostly because of inaction and inattention of the brand new US Forest Service (and there is a lot about the changes that came afterwards). The second is about a particular brand of farming pedagogy which spread through the midwest and how it created (along with weather) the terrible Dust Bowl. Very good reading, both.
posted by jessamyn at 7:27 AM on July 15, 2019

The Reckoning by David Halberstam is about Ford and Nissan, and more broadly about the decline of the American auto industry. Lots about problems at Ford going way back, to the intransigence of the elder Henry Ford in his later years.
posted by JonJacky at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2019

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America is substantially about two competing engineers who directed or influenced the policies of engineering the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers, and how this personality conflict was exhibited in the bad policies (main levies-only) that resulted in utter catastrophe when the massive rains of 1927 caused in a highly destructive flood.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:02 AM on July 15, 2019

Serpent on the Rock - about the fall of Prudential Securities.

Final Cut - about the movie "Heaven's Gate," in a way. Written by one of the production executives.
posted by rhizome at 11:33 AM on July 15, 2019

I love financial disaster
The great beanie baby bubble: a pathological liar, surgery addict creates a freak trend. Gatekeeping surbuban moms put their savings into stuffed bears. It implodes in 2000. Amazing details including a Beanie baby murder, toys divided in a childless divorce, the dying toy industry!

Michael Jackson Inc: This breaks down Jackson's horrible business practices including cold calling ransom executives and lawyers for business help. He was brilliant with money up until the 90s and people will be suing his family forever because he lost the plot.

The High Beta Rich: These mini profiles talk about what happens after self made, but crazy people get rich. One guy built an airplane hangar and befriended a legion of thieving strippers and now lives out of a truck. Another former billionaire signed up for big loans and then was jailed for years bc he couldn't pay them back.
posted by Freecola at 1:47 PM on July 15, 2019

Final Accounting is about the Enron/Anderson Consulting implosion.
posted by radioamy at 3:16 PM on July 15, 2019

Thunder on the Mountain is an account about the explosion at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine. Don Blankenship is so cartoonishly evil even by coal company CEO standards it's breathtaking.
posted by mostly vowels at 7:14 PM on July 15, 2019

Thanks for all the suggestions! I've added a bunch to my wish list and I'm looking forward to trying them out.
posted by bellebethcooper at 10:26 PM on July 15, 2019

Bitter Brew
The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
Link to NPR story with the author. Great book.
posted by wowenthusiast at 1:06 PM on July 17, 2019

I would suggest Barbarians at the Gate: the Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Very interesting story of corporate scheming/disaster.
posted by Henrietta Stackpole at 1:18 PM on July 17, 2019

Reading your question, I thought of Nancy Leveson's report on the Therac-25 radiation therapy machine accidents. It's available online here. It's an appendix in her book Safeware: System Safety and Computers, which I've never read in its entirety, but the Therac-25 account stands alone and is very readable even though it's aimed at a technical/academic audience.
posted by sigmagalator at 4:55 PM on July 17, 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl
posted by lalochezia at 10:53 PM on July 21, 2019

A late addition: I really liked Into the Raging Sea, about the sinking of the El Faro in 2015. A really interesting study of the faults of the individuals on the ship (they sailed straight into Hurricane Joaquin) as well as those of the company; I was most interested in the big-picture look into the modern shipping industry. It's definitely a company-disaster book!
posted by lilac girl at 2:12 PM on August 11, 2019

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