Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

I read about You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice in a Blog U post by Joshua Kim. Kim wrote that the book made him ponder the way we select books, which is an interesting question for librarians to consider. He also made the point that the book illuminates how bad we are at explaining our own tastes and at choosing what we’ll like and I thought, “That’s me!”

I’m the person who can never declare definitively my “favorite” of anything — color, book, movie, ice-cream flavor, etc. So well developed was my ability to see the merits of more than one side of an argument or more than one type of anything that my father was convinced when I was in college I was going to be brainwashed in an airport while listening politely to some cult member’s point of view.

I’ve had both good friends and my future husband shake their heads at my music collection (back when said collection was on cassette, and radio stations and the Columbia House music club were my only option for hearing about bands). A friend referred to me as a “musical slut;” the future husband said I was a musical disaster. He seemed frustrated that I appeared to like completely disparate stuff, to “have no taste in music,” when his own tastes were fairly well defined.

It turns out there’s a term for this in the age of the Internet. In You may Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt notes that sociologists Richard Peterson and Albert Simkus call it “omnivorousness,” and that it’s newfangled cultural elitism. One’s eclectic tastes signal status, as liking a particular class of things (for example, being an opera buff) once did. These days my strange CD collection would gain me points if I was trying to impress hipsters or highbrows. I didn’t find this very comforting. I’m not sure what’s worse, to have my taste in music described as weird or elitist. I think I’ll stick with being a weirdo.

You May Also Like is full of social science studies, past and present (I really liked the historical perspectives), observations about modern shopping and listening patterns, and interesting facts about the psychology of choice. Some of it made me squirm — how many times have I said here on bookconscious that I tend to be skeptical of prize-winning books? Turns out that’s a documented phenomena — ratings of books on Amazon drop after they win a prize. (One possible explanation is that people who wouldn’t normally read a book like the prizewinner are drawn to it because of the prize and its publicity, so those readers were never a good match for the book and are disappointed).

Vanderbilt’s writing style made it hard for me to read this book before bed. I finished it yesterday afternoon and found I took much more in. His tone is a bit scholarly — not off-puttingly, but not ideal for when I’m at my sleepiest. I admire someone who totally geeks out over his or her subject, and I think Vanderbilt does. With 63 pages of end notes for 226 pages of text, there are often 5-6 references per page. Vanderbilt’s voice isn’t as familiar or conversational as AJ Jacobs or Bill Bryson, but he does relate some of what he learns to his own experience.

If you like your nonfiction well researched and well written, you’ll like this book. I learned about things I want to follow up on — like Forgotify, a site dedicated to the millions of songs never played on Spotify. I’ll try to notice the subtle clues that an online review may not be authentic and I’ll be more aware of Vanderbilt’s astute point that even if a review is “real” it may be “subject to distortion and biases.” And I’ll be paying closer attention to my own likes and dislikes and those of my friends and family, thinking more critically about how those form and change.

As Vanderbilt concludes, “Trying to explain, or understand, any one person’s particular tastes — including one’s own — is always going to be a maddeningly elusive and idiosyncratic enterprise. But the way we come to have the tastes we do can often be understood through a set of psychological and social dynamics that function much the same, from the grocery store to the art museum. The more interesting question is not what we like but why we like.” That could be an endlessly fascinating thing to explore, now that I’ve read You May Also Like.



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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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I’d been wanting to read Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for months, but there has been a long waiting list at the library. I finally checked it out a little over a week ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly (for me anyway). It’s that kind of read.

It’s also one of those books that’s potentially life-changing. I had repeated “Ah ha!” moments as I read, mostly from recognizing the things Cain addresses in the people around me (including myself). A friend noted that “everything made so much more sense” after reading Quiet.

Cain has a very clear way of writing about the complicated human biology and psychology that makes people introverted, extroverted, or ambiverted. She explains how and why we communicate differently, work differently, and socialize differently, and how we can navigate these differences in order to get along better.  And how each of us can learn to recognize and honor these differences in each other.

She also introduces successful, sometimes famous introverts and provides plenty of reassurance for those trying to get along in an extroverted world.  Cain’s persuasive arguments are backed by evidence — concrete examples (anecdotal and scientific) of the many ways introvertedness can be a gift. One that, when appreciated and nurtured, can really benefit society. If society would shut-up and sit down and pay attention long enough to notice.

Ok, Cain didn’t say that, but I am. Because one thing Cain didn’t mention in this lovely, erudite, gentle book is that our culture today is dominated by mindless noise. Sometimes shouting seems like the main mode of communication. And what’s being communicated so loudly is often not contributing much value to the world. Those of us in the book world have repeatedly seen thoughtful, interesting books deserving of wide cultural acclaim and conversation under-appreciated while inexplicably popular titles (often unoriginal, poorly written, and/or trivial) dwarf them. I’m sure the same can be said of most everything, from cultural phenomena to political discourse.

Noise seems to dominate, even when we know it’s illogical or pointless to listen to it. I am hopeful that more introverts will get the appreciation they deserve as a result of this wonderful book. I’m grateful that Cain offers advice for how people can be themselves and also be confident, living harmonious, happy, balanced, successful lives. But in a world where noise rules even when we try not to hear it, and where ordinary shyness or anxiety is often medicated or counseled, I wonder whether the message of Quiet will prevail.

Let’s hope.

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