CEOs Read: Don Graham on his favorite books

July 24, 2014, 2:00 PM UTC
Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of Th
UNITED STATES - JULY 09: Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Co., arrives for a morning session at the 26th annual Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (Photo by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Photo by Matthew Staver/Bloomberg—Getty Images

Words are woven into Don Graham’s bloodline. He’s the CEO of Graham Holdings, which today owns test prep and online education company Kaplan. But his company and his family are best known for their newspaper roots. Until its sale to Jeff Bezos last year, the Washington Post was Graham Holdings’ crown jewel. Graham’s grandfather bought the Washington Post in 1933, and both of his parents were Post publishers. In addition, his mother, Katharine Graham, wrote the memoir Personal History. His own career has been wide and varied and includes serving in Vietnam, as well as a year and a half stint as a Washington D.C. policeman. Don Graham took a few moments to chat about his summer reading with Fortune. The following are edited excerpts.

How do you make time to read?

Reading is one of the great pleasures of my life. I read more when I’m on vacation or when I’m traveling or on weekends, but I’ve always read a lot.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure read?

George Pelecanos’s detective novels. Lots of cities have a local mystery writer and Pelecanos is the one for D.C. He wrote and directed a few of the episodes of The Wire. Forty years ago I was a cop in D.C. …some of his books take place at the same time, he gets down the interaction between police and citizens really well. He’s a really good writer.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The Winnie-the-Pooh books, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches an Egg. John R. Tunis’s baseball novels. He was the New York newspaperman of the day. They told stories that just hit me in the right way at that age. I read the Pooh books to my kids again.

What book has had the most influence on you?

When I was in my early 20s a friend sent me a book by a historian Robert Conquest, The Great Terrorone—one of the first attempts to write a history of the Stalin regime. My dad was a WWII vet. I had a grown up learning about WWII, but I did not understand who Stalin was and what he stood for. The Great Terror changed the way I thought about a lot of things.

What’s one leadership book everyone should read?

There are so many. In addition to my mother’s book, Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times. It’s about Churchill’s ancestor who has to build a coalition against the French, who had conquered most of Europe. It’s Churchill’s best book, which is saying something. A great leader writing about a great leader.

What’s on your summer reading list?

James Webb, the former senator from Virginia, just published I Heard My Country Calling. It’s a selective autobiography—there’s nothing about being senator or his time working for Regan or being a secretary of Navy. It’s about his upbringing as military brat and service in Vietnam and naval academy. Hell of a book. He’s the best writer who was a senator.

There’s a brand-new book published this month called On the Rocketship: How Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope by Richard Whitmire. It’s very optimistic and looks beyond the headlines, beyond DeBlasio, and examines how charter and public schools around the country are forging alliances and changing each other.

I’m also looking forward to the autobiography Blue-eyed Boy by Robert Timberg. He was a marine officer in Vietnam, and days before he was supposed to leave, a grenade exploded and tore away the front of his face. He’s had dozens of operations and it’s the story of living with an injury that changed his appearance and took his career away.

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