I plan to revive this blog soon, and write more about thoughts that are related – but perhaps tangental – to my research. I will soon be conducting my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, and although I won’t be able to share specific details about that, I know the experience will prompt many thoughts that will be worth sharing. I am looking forward to getting off the computer and back into the world. I’ve spent months developing a conceptual framework, so I’ve been knee (mind?) deep in theory. Time to return to practice.
For today, however, I’m just going to share a few reviews from Goodreads that I have written in recent months. If you’re a book nerd like me, you should really try out that site. You can see all my reviews at http://www.goodreads.com/saraheclement.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
As an introvert who loves books, spending time reading a book about introverts was blissful. I really enjoyed this book, just as I suspected when I first stumbled upon Cain’s Ted talk. It was thoughtful, well-written, and entertaining. More importantly, it has helped alleviate some of my guilt about who I am. Like other introverts Cain discusses in the book, I am prone to guilt, particularly guilt about my introversion and a deep-rooted sense that my personality is somehow “wrong”. Cain offers a wealth of advice not only for introverts, but also for extroverts who undoubtedly deal with extroverts in their lives or even want to cultivate the more introspective elements of their personality. Without knowing it, I have developed many of the coping techniques for introverts that Cain discusses in the book, so it was good to see that I was on the right track; but there was also plenty that was new for me. For instance, when performing a task, introverts divert more of their attention to monitoring how that task is going than extroverts do. I just thought that was a peculiar quirk I had – a need to always know where I am going and what I have done so far. I was also a bit put off by the title “Quiet” because I am an introvert, but no shrinking violet like I thought the name implied. Then I realised, like so many others in the book, I have developed an extroverted character that I play in social situations, but at my core I crave quiet to think and perform my best.
Cain manages to strike a good balance in this book. As I said, there is a wealth of information to help introverts as well as extroverts, and it would be great if more teachers, bosses, friends, and partners of introverts would read this book. There’s research, but this is more a pop psychology book, so that research is interwoven with many personal stories of people she knows and people she interviewed. It’s a fairly quick read, yet she covers the topic in sufficient depth and breadth. She doesn’t denigrate extroverts in the process of discussing the qualities of introverts. Her central thesis is a reasonable one: that we’re living in a society too heavily skewed towards extroverts, and we need to also provide environments in which introverts can thrive. Any introvert who has worked in an open office plan or attended a networking event knows just how painful this extrovert bias can be, and while we can certainly hone our acting skills and pretend to be extroverts, to do so without “restorative niches” is exhausting. But this book is about so much more than this simple thesis, and I would highly recommend it to anyone; but particularly to other introverts that may not entirely embrace, understand, or nurture this aspect of their personality.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
I bought this book on a whim when I was browsing in the psychology section, mainly because this was the only book (besides Kahneman’s most recent) in that section that was not a ridiculous self-help book. I’m not sure what’s happening to the psychology section of book stores, but I do know that this was an excellent impulse buy. I really liked the way this book was organised. Each chapter built on the previous one, taking the reader through a really compelling narrative about how we decide – exactly as advertised. He does an excellent job of weaving personal narratives with the research, which really made the information about the way the brain works easier to understand and absolutely fascinating. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was that he has restored some of my faith in my brain! This may sound a bit odd, but after reading books like Mistakes Were Made and Invisible Gorilla, you start to get a bit flustered with just how wrong you can be. This book was a good counterbalance to the effect of reading those. Although he does discuss the weaknesses of the way our brain regions interact when making a decision, he also discusses many of the strengths and provides really clear, tangible ways that we can protect ourselves from errors and play on those strengths. It’s not an academic work, so the referencing is not very good (just a Bibliography and no in-text citations or footnotes). It didn’t bother me that much, but because I read books like this for the curiosity factor, it does make it difficult to follow up on particular passages that piqued my interest. I imagine that if you were in this field of research, the lack of referencing would annoy you, but I’d say this book isn’t directed at you, rather it’s for the curious layman who wants to know more about what’s happening inside his/her head when making decisions.
How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions by Christopher diCarlo
I admit that the title of this book got me. As an American living abroad, I already feel like a pain in the ass a lot (“Americans are so loud!” “Why do you always ask so many questions?”), so I figured it would be fun to learn new, more constructive ways to irritate people with my probing questions. Unfortunately, this book didn’t really deliver.
This would be a really great book for teaching critical thinking to high schoolers. The writing is clear and easy to understand, and it covered the most basic and important aspects of critical thinking. It’s systematically written, and it’s very clear where diCarlo is taking you. However, the style of writing wasn’t for me, as it seemed more like an essay for university than one with a compelling, interesting narrative. It was almost robotic at times, then he would throw in a pretty decent joke, so I don’t think he’s completely humourless! I just think his personality doesn’t come through in the writing, and even though it’s a book about a serious topic, I think a more compelling narrative would have made the book much better. His paragraphs are also unbearably long in parts, mainly because they cover more than one point. This not only makes it more difficult to read, but it doesn’t make sense given how clear he is in most of the book. He also has a habit of repeating the same points over and over again. In several places he actually has almost an identical sentence written with slightly different wording, right in a row! The only reason I can think of for this is that he teaches undergraduates, and he must be used to having to flag his point really obviously and repeatedly to make sure it gets through. I’m a very slow, careful reader, however, so this drove me insane.
The illustrations in this book are weird. They are often of everyday objects, and it’s difficult to find the method in the madness behind how these were selected. When there are relevant illustrations that are useful, they sometimes just threw me off. In his discussion of the “Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge” for instance, he is actually talking about pre-existing theories that many authors before him have discussed. Using systems theory to explain the relationship between natural and cultural systems is not new, and I found it a bit odd that he didn’t reference any of these authors. There are entire disciplines devoted to this sort of perspective! (e.g. human ecology)
At the beginning of the book he asks you to answer ‘the five big questions’ and then you’re supposed to answer them at the end. They were interesting, but it would have been better if he had either phrased the questions more accurately or set them up better. I personally misinterpreted a few. For instance, “why am I here?” was actually “why is the universe here?” and “what am I?” is actually “where did humans come from?” or something to that effect. If he had explained that this was to get a sense that this was about whether you believe in natural or supernatural origins of life, that would have changed my thinking, but I thought the questions were more about ontology and epistemology.
All that said, I am giving the book a fair rating because I think it’s a really good guide to critical thinking, and I think it will be a useful book to keep around as a reference. I recently heard an interview with diCarlo, and I must say I am looking forward to his next book which is on free will. But I think with that book I will have a look through before buying to see that it’s written in a style that is…well…more my style.