Monthly Archives: September 2009

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

This book felt a bit schizophrenic.  On the one hand, Gladwell’s thesis is that split-second decisions can be surprisingly accurate; on the other, he must acknowledge they can be infected with fatal errors and deep analysis is required to understand why and how that happens.

Everyone has had exeriences that validate the power of the “blink” – on the most prosaic level, rethinking your answers on a multiple choice test almost always hurts your score.  And we make important decisions, about where to go to college, who to date, which job to take, primarily on gut feelings based on relatively little input. Those decisions usually work out pretty well, but they fail often enough to keep us wary of our first impressions.

At that point, Gladwell’s thesis falls apart and becomes just  a statement of fact: sometimes first impressions are really powerful, but sometimes they’re wrong.  His detours into profiles of people with extremely good or extremely poor “thin-slice” decision-making are interesting, but a bit shallow.  His examples of good decision-makng both reveal that there’s nothing instantaneous about them and neglect potential criticisms. For example, Gladwell focuses a lot on John Gottman’s videos of couples discussing an issue in their relationship – Gottman claims he can determine the long-term success of the marriage from just a few minutes of footage.  There are a few obvious issues with this scenario – the analysis actually takes quite a period of time, by trained coders writing down what they see in each second, so while after years of practice they might be able to do the analysis in real time, it’s not really an example of rapid decision-making.  Also, Gladwell fails to mention that other researchers have not been able to replicate Gottman’s work.  Here’s a study that found women’s initiation of criticism and men’s hostility to criticism did not have measurable impacts on relationship outcomes, contrary to Gottman’s conclusions.  While examining your relationship style is valuable, if the thin-slice focuses on the wrong behaviours, it’s potentially dangerous.  A longer term or more in depth therapy might pick up on the couple being fine with a fairly confrontational arguing style, but suffering from other corrosive attitudes.

The concept of training one’s thin-slice perception is also undermined by Gladwell’s presentation of the many ways we cannot retrain ourselves – even though he is half-Jamaican, he, like most Americans, records a preference for white faces on the Project Implicit test.  It’s almost impossible to override that preference and score more evenly on the test (I heard about this several years ago and gave it a try then – I had no luck in forcing myself to an even score).  Gladwell also presents the example of a tennis coach who can predict double-faults, but cannot figure out what he’s seeing, so there’s no way for another person to learn to see what he sees.

While the book was entertaining, it ultimately failed to cohere (perhaps because it seemed to have been compiled from Gladwell’s articles elsewhere – I had read about microexpressions in his piece in the New Yorker in 2002).  I didn’t walk away knowing when to trust my first impressions or how to retrain them or how to shape others first impressions of me (other than to be tall and good-looking if I want to be president).

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A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

Mini “earth” trend here after The Pillars of the Earth.

I was happy to see that I would be reading non-fiction again.  I wasn’t too put off by it seeming to be a self-improvement book; I think reading The Artist’s Way this spring helped inspire me to start the Book Club project and I like to read about cycling training lately.  Self-improvement is a good thing and books can definitely be helpful and inspirational.

Initially, A New Earth resonated with some things I had thinking about.  Tolle talks a lot about meditation and observing your own consciousness.  I am a failed meditator (so far, keep meaning to try some more), but I see a lot of value in it for quieting the running monologue and putting the day’s stresses in perspective.

Tolle’s formulation is unappealing, however, because he says that the goal of meditation is to let go of everything that makes one an individual (interests, intelligence, values) because it is “of the earth” and to get in touch with a universal consciousness.  He challenges readers to look past the actions and characteristics of others to see the universal consciousness in them as well.  But how can I be interested in one person rather than another if I only see their fragment of a universal constant?  The things I love about the people in my life are what make them unique, even if flawed.  I found this aspect of the philosophy recognizable as an outgrowth of various religious traditions of seeking God or the universal in everyone, but taken too far, diminish the meaning of human relationships.

Where  really wrote off Tolle was his leap to the global effect of a lack of higher consciousness.  First, he seems to believe global warming is one such effect, not in the sense that if people were more in tune with themselves they would be more conscious of their effects on the earth, but in the literal sense that lack of transcendance has an effect on natural phenomena.  He also indulges in some “law of attraction” nonsense, which I think is more like blaming the victim.

At times I wanted to put this book down because it so frustrated and annoyed me, but I couldn’t help wondering where it was going.  I found myself mentally rewriting sections to turn Tolle’s ideas into something reasonable and palatable to me.  As with Follett, I know Tolle is immensely popular, but on the basis of this book, I can’t see why.

Book as Accessory

I’ve been mulling all week on James Wolcott’s piece in Vanity Fair about the loss of “visible markers of superior taste and intelligence” as we digitize what we consume – the white headphones don’t disclose what I’m listening to, the Kindle hides what you’re reading – and lose a way to connect.  There’s a bit of a disconnect between his quote and my summary, but it’s a rambling article and I’m going to ramble about it.

I’m sure someone has written about book covers in an academic way, but this week I’ve been thinking about the different purposes they might serve in the peculiar context of the subway (Wolcott’s article is even accompanied by a photograph of a subway rider ostentatiously reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover).  Wolcott talks about coffee table books and stocking your shelves with the “right” books to project a certain image of one’s self – is anyone doing this on the subway?  From my six months or so of watching, I think generally not.  Sure, the Camus-reading young man with wild hair and suspenders is projecting a very carefully constructed persona, and the book is part of that persona, but most people, as I’ve noted, tend to get uncomfortable when they realize I’m trying to see what they’re reading.  We count on the anonymity of the city to read whatever we want – like the woman reading a relationship self-help book next to me – but we tuck those books away from coworkers and friends.

I do think, sometimes, about the personality I impute to a person based on what he is reading because I assume he is interested in the book and likes it.  But he could be reading it for class or finishing a book he finds boring (it’s taken me years to be able not to finish) or reading it because someone else on the subway was reading it.  When I’m between book club books, the cycling book in my hands is a great marker for my interests, but when I’m slogging through The House of Mirth, someone approaching me on that basis is going to be disappointed.

But we never approach each other, which is a flaw in Wolcott’s elegy for the book.  At least in the subway context, I have never seen more than a passing comment on what a stranger is reading.  It’s taboo to approach other riders except for help figuring out the weekend service changes.  Maybe the signaling function works at Starbucks, but in the shared privacy of the subway, we seem to choose our books for ourselves and not for what they say about us.

The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

Up front I have to admit, I didn’t finish this one.  I didn’t even come close.  While I was debating whether to go on, a law school friend posted on Facebook about his love of Follett’s books and encouraged me to keep reading, but I just couldn’t.

Why?  I am very picky about fiction, and I hadn’t read much historical fiction before.  I like the concept, but this book felt like it was cramming in history at the expense of the fiction.  Not so much historical facts as historical color about what the cathedral town might be like.  That’s interesting, but you could have an entire book about the rhythms of life in a cathedral town, and it feels excessive to jam it into 10 pages that are also supposed to be a chase scene.

But the real probably was that I just didn’t like the fiction.  The actual or near death of 2 seemingly main characters in the first 2-3 chapters was unwelcome toying with my emotions (part of why I avoid fiction – life is hard enough without grieving over the fates of fictional characters).  The relationship between two other characters was so spelled out, along the lines of “he felt a stirring in his loins” and “who was this strange woman”, that I felt like a 14 year old me, trying to write a romance novel, would have produced similar work.  Actually, the novel overall reminded me strongly of an actual 8th grade social studies project, “A Day in the Life of a Noblewoman”.  The only characters about which I felt curiousity were the monks, but it wasn’t enough to face another 500 pages.

I know Follett’s books are wildly popular, but I just don’t see it.  Anyone want to explain?

Do I read anything else?

One of the first questions I get when I explain the Big Idea is whether I read anything other than the Book Club books.  The short answer: Yes.

Slightly longer answer: I read the Book Club books only on the subway, unless I get really into them, then I’ll read them at home in the evening.  Otherwise, evenings are usually for catching up on blogs while watching sports (if it has a score, I’ll watch it).  I have time between Book Club books to read magazines (Harpers, The New Yorker) and books of my own choosing (cycling training lately) because I get my books through the New York Public Library and usually have a bit of a delay while the book is being delivered to the branch nearest my office.  And I do a ton of reading at work – legal research, document review, following news about my clients and legal world developments, reviewing other people’s work – so occasionally I need a little break and you’ll find me playing solitaire on my iPhone rather than reading the latest Book Club book on the way home.

New Book, Same Old Shoulder Pain

I hopped on the R Thursday morning determined to take it the whole way to work to be sure and have a enough time to finish the Kennedys book.  As I stepped on, I noticed a man nearby with a book open in his lap and got a little thrill of anxiety, hoping it was good in case he was still next to me when I finished.

About 14 seconds after passing the express option at Atlantic/Pacific, my book was done (a lot of endnotes made it hard to judge how much I had to go).  Time to figure out what the guy next to me had, so I tried to read the info at the top of the pages.  I got what looked like “Frank Dougherty” before the guy noticed me looking and turned away.  For the next few stops, I looked around for other options (maybe his book was dumb anyway), but only saw copies of the Daily News.  That’s a downside of the local – sometimes I take it to be sure of a seat and have more time to read, but there’s fewer people to catch a book from.  I supposed they are less likely to pull out a book too,because you can assume they don’t have as far to go.

Finally, at 14th Street the secretive reader had to close his book to get off the subway and I caught the cover – Tipperary.  Unfortunately, it looks like I’m in for a sore shoulder for awhile to come with that.  I like hardcovers for commuting because they have better spines, but they’re rough on the joints. (I swear I didn’t intend the anatomical pun, but I’m leaving it in.)

Follow-Up on What People are Reading

Alexis Mainland over at the City Blog has posted a follow-up on the poll of what people are reading on the subway.  Everyone else is as surprised by Infinite Jest as I was, and the poor souls on the 1 are all reading The New Yorker.  With all those local stops, I vote it best line for Infinite Jest.