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With Fight Club, top Long Island business executives wrestle over books

Members of the Fight Club, a book group,

Members of the Fight Club, a book group, meet at the Cove Neck home of Michael Ashner to discuss the book "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson. (March 14, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

They call it Fight Club.

Two Long Island businessmen -- the CEO of a real estate company and a venture capitalist -- lead a meeting every six weeks of what is arguably the most high-powered book club in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

In the living room of a Gold Coast mansion, the pair and about 10 friends dissect and debate, sometimes passionately, books by authors ranging from Marcus Aurelius and Iris Murdoch to Leo Tolstoy and Tom Wolfe.

George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager, attended a meeting three years ago where his book about the 2008 financial crisis was discussed.

Ultimately, Fight Club members said they hope to become more well-rounded people -- and to nourish the creativity that underlies innovation in their fields. They worry that their minds are becoming one-dimensional, flattened by leadership responsibilities and the weight of financial reports, market analyses and other numbingly repetitive reading.

To that end, they invite people sure to have differing points of view on the books: scientists, clergy, an advocate for the poor, and people from medicine and politics. All welcome differences of opinion: hence the name Fight Club.

"I'm interested in anyone whose views and perspective are different from mine," said Michael L. Ashner, chief executive of Winthrop Realty Trust, who hosts the book group at his waterfront mansion in Cove Neck. "I want as much eclectic intellect in a room as possible."

At a meeting last month, Fight Club members spent about 90 minutes discussing a science writer's recipe for spurring innovation -- and whether it could work on Long Island. Afterward, members said the debate was typical of ones they've had over 45 books since 2009. They said the vigorous exchange (one member called another's argument "the dumbest thing I've ever heard") was designed to shake them up intellectually.

"There's repetition to anybody's professional life," said club administrator Mark Fasciano, managing director of the Hicksville-based venture capital fund Canrock Ventures.

"Being able to spend time reading a book that's important but doesn't bear directly on the mechanics of your profession, and then to debate that book with people who have different points of view -- that makes you more flexible in how you approach problems," he said.

The club's reading list runs from biography and math to philosophy and fiction.

There are books about science (Jim Holt's "Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story"), foreign policy (Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World") and history (James Blight and Janet Lang's "The Fog of War: Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara"). There are classics (Herman Melville's "Billy Budd") and thrillers (John LeCarré's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy").

This literary diversity and the conversations it fosters, said some scholars, can be lacking in the lives of professionals.

Too many business people "feel constrained" to tackle problems in the same manner as their peers, said Christopher E. Stevens, director of the leadership program for entrepreneurs at Gonzaga University's business school in Spokane, Wash. "The brain is a muscle, it needs to be worked. When you're reading books like these, it encourages you to think broadly, to recognize opportunities," he said.

Stevens and others likened Fight Club to the reading regimen of Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, who immerses himself in books and research papers during "Think Week" vacations.

Patrick J. Socci, dean of Hofstra University's business school in Hempstead, isn't in Fight Club, but sees value in the group's approach. He recalled reading Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and other classical philosophers, on his own, while working in information systems on Wall Street in the 1980s and 1990s.

"I didn't understand everything I read," Socci said, "but it forced me to do more focused thinking and that helped me with my work."

Fight Club was born from the friendship between Fasciano, the venture capitalist, and Ashner, head of a publicly traded real estate investment trust in Boston.

The men relished debating over wine and a meal at a local restaurant. However, they got so caught up in the point-counterpoint that they forgot their wives were at the table, too.

Fasciano's spouse eventually told him she thought it would be better if he and Ashner went out by themselves. Upon hearing this, Ashner suggested they start a book club.

Fasciano dubbed it Fight Club, a moniker that Ashner said he dislikes.

The first members were four businessmen but they soon recruited people from other professions who were likely to have divergent views. The organizers said they want to add artists, writers and more women to the membership roster, which totals 22, many from the business world.

At the meeting last month, the book group discussed "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.In his 2010 work, Johnson uses past scientific discoveries to argue that inventions stem from sharing ideas over long periods of time, not the Eureka moment of a genius working alone. He says the ideal environments are cities and the Internet because they facilitate the exchange of ideas.

Over wine and hors d'oeuvres, Fight Club members asked, were the seven principles outlined by Johnson in his 326-page tome -- concepts such as the role of serendipity, error and the "slow hunch" in the creative process -- plausible? Could they be applied to companies in Nassau-Suffolk, where officials hope to cure anemic job growth with a more dynamic business culture?

Fasciano kicked off the debate saying the book contained lessons "I found very useful for my everyday life," in particular the long gestation period of ideas.

Ashner was unenthusiastic. The author failed to recognize the role of necessity in inventions, such as development of the atomic bomb by the United States during World War II, Ashner said.

Creativity, replied Fasciano, often isn't planned. Inventors "take a leap of faith, a gut guess because there is a limit to rationality."

Ashner shot back: "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

With the sun setting outside, Mark Lesko, the former Brookhaven Town supervisor who heads the business development group Accelerate Long Island, asked, "What needs to be done to make Long Island more innovative?"

Dr. Bruce Charash, a cardiologist, replied, "This book describes what worked for different people, but you don't know if it will work for you."

Others cited an example of the book's thesis at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: scientists comparing notes in the cafeteria.

"The problem is the creative people on Long Island are too spread out," said Thomas R. Suozzi, a senior adviser at the Lazard Ltd. investment bank who is running again for Nassau County executive. "The volume of creative people in cities is greater, so they can find each other."

Lydia Esslinger, who teaches English at Syosset High School, added: "We have no marketplace to congregate, to share ideas" as the ancient Greeks did in the agora in Athens. "We have the mall but people don't go there to talk about ideas, it's to shop."

The formal discussion ended with the opening of the dining room doors. However, the conversation continued about the book and other topics over a four-course meal catered by LaGinestra, the Italian restaurant in Glen Cove that has fed Fight Club for years.

After the main course, members usually talk about what's on their mind. "If you are struggling with a problem, you put it out to the group," said Resi Cooper, a government consultant and the club's first of three female members. "To get different, varying viewpoints . . . that's been helpful to me and others."

Jack Iacovone, managing director at the investment bank Needham & Co. in Manhattan, said he leaves each discussion "feeling energized in a way few things in my life can consistently match."

The "no-topics-barred debate . . . has come to be a welcome respite from my day-to-day routine," he said. "It is one of the few days I look forward to."

Hit List

Title and author of all the books they've read:

“Abide with Me” (Elizabeth Strout)
“The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler” (Thomas Hager)
“America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It” (Mark Steyn)
“Animal Farm” (George Orwell)
“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” (Kathryn Schulz)
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Steven Pinker)
“Billy Budd” (Herman Melville)
“Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Timothy Snyder)
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (Thornton Wilder)
“Colonel Roosevelt” (Edmund Morris)**
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (Leo Tolstoy)
“Deus Ex Machina” (Ralph Gibson)**
“The Drowned and the Saved” (Primo Levi)
“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (Tom Wolfe)
“Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software” (Steven Johnson)
“The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age (John Horgan)**
“Eric Fischl: 1970-2007” (Arthur C. Danto, Robert Enright, Steve Martin)
“A Fairly Honourable Defeat” (Iris Murdoch)
“The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (James G. Blight, Janet M. Lang)
“Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
“Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” (James Gleick)
“Homage to Catalonia” (George Orwell)
“The Home and the World” (Rabindranath Tagore)
“In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” (Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark)
“In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (James L. Kugel)
“The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood) (James Gleick)
“Man’s Search for Meaning” (Viktor E. Frankl)
“Meditations” (Marcus Aurelius)
“The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street” (Justin Fox)
“The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means” (George Soros)**
“1984” (George Orwell)
“On China” (Henry Kissinger)
“Outliers: The Story of Success” (Malcolm Gladwell)
“The Post-American World” (Fareed Zakaria)
“Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (Dan Ariely)“The Prince” (Niccolo Machiavelli)
“Prisoner’s Dilemma” (William Poundstone)
“The Snow Leopard” (Peter Matthiessen)
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (John LeCarre)
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” (Daniel Kahneman)
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (John LeCarre)
“What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” (Michael J. Sandel)
“Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” (Steven Johnson)
“Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story” (Jim Holt)
“Zen Gifts to Christians” (Robert E. Kennedy)**
“Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life” (Robert E. Kennedy)**
NEXT MONTH: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” (Katherine Boo)
Note: **author participated in Fight Club’s book discussion

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