Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gilead: A Review

GileadGilead by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robinson’s novel is narrated by John Ames, who is writing a wistful and spare letter to his young son. It contains a lifetime of reminisces: about his vocation as a pastor, of his marriage late in life to a younger woman, and a good deal about his ne’er-do-well godson. When I tried to read this several years ago I didn’t make it halfway through but in this audiobook version it became more than palatable, it showed how this work bears the imprint of genuine human experience.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Quiet: A Review

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If American culture has a personality preference would it be the outgoing, social extrovert or the reserved and thoughtful introvert? In Susan Cain's new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking she posits that the former is our template, something she calls the Extrovert Ideal. This "ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight" and though this is an "enormously appealing personality style ...we've turned it into an oppressive standard."

The most compelling material is front-loaded, especially in discussions like how new the phrase "having a good personality" is (20th century), and how advertising for things like soap in the 1920s were pointing toward a more confident outgoing self. Cain visits a Tony Robbins rally/seminar and Harvard Business School seeking to understand the dynamics of extroversion, and visits Rick Warren's Saddleback Church with the author of a book on introversion in the church who has good insights into the quiet, liturgy, and contemplation found in high church tradition and missing in evangelical megachurches. There will be recognition here for most readers drawn to a book like this.

The missteps come later on, mostly centered on explaining events/people through the lens of extroversion/introversion and the "exciting research" of neuroscience. She frames things like the rejection of Al Gore's climate change advocacy and Moses’ reluctance to serve Yahweh in terms of their introversion and tries to show that evolution has given us a "new brain" that replaces the "old brain", which sounds suspiciously like our sinful nature to begin with. There are time where inserting categories like temperament can't bear the weight of the application she's using, and between these speculations that are not well grounded and the trips into scientism they grind the book to a halt in places.

This is a book that will appeal to readerly types whose very love of books and what they provide predispose them to the arguments contained. There is a bit too much us-versus-them and it is overlong but to have someone write about what so many of us think is thrilling if not completely satisfying in the end.