Too Many Books

Speaking Softly: On ‘Quiet,’ by Susan Cain

During my brief and infrequent stints in an office environment, the one criticism consistently lobbed at me by managers and superiors was my perceived unwillingness to engage with people, to favor email over face-to-face communication, for vocalizing my ideas in the casual debriefing we would have after meetings. I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that my preferred method of conducting myself was something I needed to “get over,” and with no small amount of time and difficulty, I did to an extent. But the second my boss presented me with a request for information from somewhere in the company I’d never dealt with before, I would sit at my desk and have to psych myself up for something as simple as an email, then pore over every word, read the thing out loud to ensure the information was related clearly, then get irritated when my carefully constructed email would snag a two-line reply.

How lovely, then, to come across a book arguing that not only is it okay to be how I am, sometimes it’s even preferable.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a 300-page excuse for the introverted to retreatfurther into themselves, rather it’s an indictment of a certain type of Western worldview that puts a premium on the dynamic, go-getter extroverted types at the expense of the more reserved among us who would prefer to make decisions more slowly.  Cain travels everywhere from the Harvard Business School to Cupertino, California to an Anthony Robbins Seminar, marveling at how sharp the dichotomy is between introverts and extroverts really is, and how painful the struggle is for introverts trying to fake it in a world that doesn’t value them or what they can contribute [like the guy at the Harvard Business School who pulls great grades but feels he’s wasting his education because he can’t muster the energy to attend the multiple social outings he was expected to attend every week].

The worlds of business and education come under the harshest scrutiny from Cain, with their unrelenting emphasis on forced collaborations that sometimes do more to stifle innovation than encourage it.  I mean, I was a low rung on the ladder when I was in the office, my busiest day might have involved three meetings at the most.  That’s still at least three hours of the day that I’m not working, at least not under my definition of the word.  I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are actually busy there.

But, the book doesn’t let introverts off the hook, examining the ways in which they can stretch themselves into pretend extroverts to better make their way in the world. It can be done, but it’s important to note, and the book does so frequently, that it really only works when introverts believe fully and passionately about the things they are stretching themselves for: I was able to finally start speaking up in meetings because I fully cared about the ideas we were sharing; I can talk to someone I’ve never met at the bookstore for fifteen minutes or more because I’m passionate about books and reading and want to help a stranger in their reading experience.

While I adored the book, I found I enjoyed it the most when I was able to most recognize my experience in it; when Cain wrote about things like the science of introversion and extroversion or how to encourage introverted kids [subjects I agree the book needed to address] I found myself skimming ahead.

All told, Quiet was a fantastic read, and pretty mandatory for anyone who’s ever been made to feel like there’s something wrong with them because their idea of an amazing Friday night involves a pizza and a movie at home more than a house party crammed with people.

For the interested but lazy, check out Cain’s 16-point ‘Quiet Manifesto,’ [taken from her website] as well as her recent TED Talk on the subject.

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

The PFG Book Club: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

It's the end of the world. How do you feel?

After reading Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children,” a couple of years back, I promptly threw a Staff Pick sticker on it and probably hand sold 20 copies of it over the next six months [you owe me a beer, Perrotta].  I have yet to read the book that came after it [The Abstinence Teacher], but his most recent offering shot to the top of my queue based on the uniqueness of its premise.  Well, unique for him anyway.

On October 14, three years before the events of the novel, millions of people disappear from the face of the earth. Poof! Gone. No explanation, they just…aren’t there anymore.  The media calls it the Sudden Departure. Perrotta has always been a writer concerned with how people relate to each other. In The Leftovers, he zeroes in on the residents of Mapleton, a small American city, specifically  the Garvey family.  All of the Garveys react to the disappearances in a different way: son Tom vanishes after dropping out of college and falling in with a self-styled spiritual healer named Holy Wayne; mother Laurie abandons her family and joins the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members take a vow of silence and wander the streets in all white robes, smoking cigarettes and surveying the other citizens of Mapleton to make sure they never forget the Sudden Departure, and remember it could just as easily happen again.  Father [and Mapleton mayor] Kevin and daughter Jill are left behind, pun intended, to try to figure out how to live in a world where people can disappear on you just as easily when they’re still on the planet.

Perrotta’s strength has always lied with his gift for character.  Even bit players who wander the streets of Mapleton pop off the page, like the Evangelical Minister who can’t believe he wasn’t among the departed after devoting his life to God.  He wanders the streets of Mapleton distributing a tabloid newsletter disparaging the reputations of the missing as adulterers or thieves. And it always feels real, it always makes perfect sense that these people would react that way.  As a reader, you understand why Laurie would walk out on her family to join the Guilty Remnant, you feel how difficult the decision is for her, and empathize with her struggle to reconcile with what the ultimate goals of the group are revealed to be.  If I had one gripe, it’s only that I found Tom’s story to be the weakest narratively.  His road trip across America with one of Holy Wayne’s child brides after his arrest on sex charges is well written, but serves more as a plot lever to get pulled so other things can happen to more interesting characters.

This is no Cormac McCarthy-esque apocalypse, no rotisserie babies here. In his version of the apocalypse, society doesn’t collapse, even if people do.  Perrotta’s one of the soundest craftsmen I’ve ever read [a long-held belief], his sentences flow with such a restrained, natural ease, he never feels the need to intentionally wow a reader. Yet then you come across one of his similes or metaphors that reveal just how good he is.

I’m making a big deal out of this book because I’m afraid it’ll dip under the radar if I don’t. The publishing publicity machine can be such a cyclone of teen dystopia and pop poli-sci that when a book comes out that’s just a great, solidly written, thoughtful and entertaining novel comes out, it can totally be lost in the noise.  Two months, it’s shuffled off the new release tables in the bookstores never to be seen again.  With word that HBO’s developing The Leftovers as a series, that seems less likely, but I still  plan on fighting for this book with everyone I speak to. It’s just that good.  Read it now so you can brag when the show hits.

Tools of the Trade

Always a pile. Always.

If you’re like me, friends, the only thing you like more than writing is reading about writing.  In fact, sometimes that’s actually preferable: you can feel connected to your art without actually facing the horror of trying to create some.  Since I started working in book retail, I’ve read and purchased dozens of books on writing craft, and my product knowledge on the genre is actually one of my lesser known gifts ar work. As the folks over at Flashlight Reviews  have recently corralled what they consider the best books on writing, I thought I would share five of my own. Since I only recognize two on that list and have read none.

Thing is, there’s two approaches to a book on writing craft: a nuts and bolts how-to, filled with practical points and techniques to remember; and a more touchy feely, granola, dirty hippy, ‘get in touch with your artist’s spirit’ type of book. They both have their place, and I’ll be recommending titles from both styles, but in the interest of full disclosure you should know I have a strong preference for the former variety.  Shall we?

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I Got You Stuck Off the Realness

Ceci n'est pas un livre.

“Is it possible that contemporary literary prizes are exactly like the federal bailout package, subsidizing work that is no longer remotely describing reality?”

–David Shields, “Reality Hunger”

Yowch. There’s a lot to yowch about in Shields’ [“The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll be Dead“] latest. Reality Hunger calls itself a manifesto on the cover, but if anything it’s a printed mixtape. An argument presented in over 600 numbered snippets, none more than a page or two in length, some Shields wrote, some lifted from a variety of sources across a number of disciplines. The only way of distinguishing which is which is a poorly [by design] assembled appendix at the back of the book, an appendix Shields urges the reader not to consult. Because knowing who said what defeats the purpose of the book and what Shields is trying to accomplish. He wants to blend not only genre, but form. (more…)