Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell: Back Bay Books: 2011 (paperback edition)

My first economics class was AP Economics in high school. My teacher was… good enough, although one day, after assigning Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he advised me to discontinue pursuing economics. He felt I didn’t have natural aptitude for the soft science. This would be fine if it were true, but, its not and I was offended. A bachelor’s degree in economics and a few Gladwell books later, I’m still a sucker for both. Few are capable of Gladwell’s concise insight and humor and I’m still so very pleased with his work.

Essentially, it’s a lot like the age old nature vs. nurture debate. To a degree… is success something that comes about through a strong, driven individual through his/her merit, perseverance and innate gifts? Or are people just like anything else… with enough money, attention, help, love and time, can they become the next Bill Gates? Bill Joy? Bill Clinton?

NYTimes Review snippet:

At the end of this revisionist tale, Gladwell asks Gates himself how many other teenagers in the world had as much experience as he had by the early 1970s. “If there were 50 in the world, I’d be stunned,” Gates says. “I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.” Gates’s talent and drive were surely unusual. But Gladwell suggests that his opportunities may have been even more so.

Many people, I think, have an instinctual understanding of this idea (even if Gladwell, in the interest of setting his thesis against conventional wisdom, doesn’t say so). That’s why parents spend so much time worrying about what school their child attends. They don’t really believe the child is so infused with greatness that he or she can overcome a bad school, or even an average one. And yet when they look back years later on their child’s success — or their own — they tend toward explanations that focus on the individual. Devastatingly, if cheerfully, Gladwell exposes the flaws in these success stories we tell ourselves.

Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Harper Perennial: 1990

This book was recommended to me by a homeless woman I met on Newbury street a few years ago named Ellen. The idea is kind of nice… boiling it all down leads to the belief that finding happiness stems from truly being in the moment and harnessing the beauty and complexity that’s encapsulated in our experiences, moments, tasks, what have you. It’s essentially a self-help book, if I had to commit it to a genre– I do tend to avoid self-help books, but when a sagely, lucid woman solicits your attention from a trash laden thrown on the steps of a church that’s probably overlooked by thousands of people a day, you take notice.

Ellen used to be a school teacher, as it turned out. She was poised, soft-spoken and sharp. If fate had handed her such a harsh set of circumstances, then no one’s really covered. And instead of being bitter about it, she pulled me into her world and suggested I read a book she thought was nice. Then she told me to come to the church on Thursdays because that’s when they get really great designer clothes that people donate because she thought I looked stylish and said she knew “how hard it is for students out there”. I was stunned into silence after that last part and I wanted to feel sad for her, but I just kept thinking about how much better she was than the general human population for wanting to still do nice things after all that she had (probably) been through.

If this were a Jim Carey movie, we would all find out Ellen was just a manifestation of the almighty as the final credits started rolling. I kept going back, unsuccessfully, every so often to see if I could see her again. She’s gone forever. But not from my heart. Miss you, Ellen.

Generic summary you’ll find on Google: “Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness calledflow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.”

The Social Animal: David Brooks: Random House: 2011


One part behavioral psychologists digest. One part emotional account of the characters lives. Interwoven nicely so I’m not bored of the various experiment’s name dropping and explanations. Good, solid read through LIFE and the Way Things Work!

From The Guardian: To bring order to this messy-sounding fusion, he invents two characters called Harold and Erica, both contemporary Americans. Harold is “a popular, athletic high-school boy who also showed flashes of idealism”. White, middle class and slightly under-motivated, he has a comfortable, loving upbringing followed by an intermittently fulfilling career as a management consultant, then a historian, then a think-tank intellectual. His wife Erica is, in predictable ways, very different: half Chinese-American and half Mexican-American, raised in poverty and relentlessly driven. She sets up her own company, moves on to reform a giant conglomerate, and ends up a big player in Washington politics.

As Brooks follows Harold and Erica from childhood to retirement, and describes the other people they interact with, he weaves in digressions on everything from IQ to the unconscious, toddler development to school discipline, management fads to modern political campaigning. The book grows into a strange hybrid: part science primer, part polemic, part self-help, part satire and part melodramatic novel. The tone shifts wildly: from wide-eyed wonder at the discoveries of science to world-weariness at the current state of western political discourse. The factual sections, which draw hungrily on scores of academic and more popular sources, are sometimes deftly integrated into the story, and sometimes not. The fictional sections are sometimes delicately drawn, even moving, and sometimes embarrassingly schematic.

The Imperfectionists: Tom Rachman: The Dial Press: 2010

I really love books about a variety of characters who’s lives are intertwined because they offer a circumspect view of their interactions and experiences. We see their perspectives through their own subjective lens and we are offered a richness that well surpasses that of one continuous point of view. Rachman’s vocabulary is utilized almost perfectly, he’s witty and he navigates the endless ocean that lies between language and sentiment skillfully.

It all surrounds the newsroom of a decomposing English language international paper based in Rome and the theme that’s carried out through the stories of his characters is actually Joyce-like.  I liked this so much–it was one of those books I wished would never end.

Here’s a passage about Lloyd, my favorite story in his collection:

He peers into the back of the shop.

“They’re not here yet,” she snaps.

“Who aren’t?”

“The girls.”

“Your workers? Why are you telling me that?”

“You got here too early. Bad timing.” Charlotte claims that Lloyd has pursued every woman she ever introduced him to, starting with her best friend at lycée, Nathalie, who came along for a vacation to Antibes once and lost her bikini top in the waves. Charlotte caught Lloyd watching. Thankfully, she never learned that matters eventually went much further between her father and Nathalie.

But all that is over. Finished, finally. So senseless in retrospect—such effort wasted. Libido: it has been the tyrant of his times, hurling him from comfortable America all those years ago to sinful Europe for adventure and conquest, marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more, distracting and degrading and nearly ruining him. Yet now it is mercifully done with, desire having dwindled these past years, as mysterious in departure as it was on arrival. For the first time since age twelve, Lloyd witnesses the world without motive. And he is quite lost.


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