Friday, March 18, 2016

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - 3 stars

There are many different kinds of powers in the world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard's education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you've been granted.

Quiet had been on my radar ever since Susan Cain's popular TED Talk on introversion. I am an introvert myself; one who never minded disclosing the fact when the topic came up. Usually, that led to responses ranging from "Oh, I never would've guessed!" to "Gosh, that can't be easy". All from well-meaning people who conflate shyness with introversion - traits which sometimes go together, but are wholly different at a fundamental level. So I was very excited to find someone out there, on such a wide-reaching platform, attempting to clear up some facts about what introversion actually is and is not. Since it is a subject close to my heart, I couldn't resist adding my perspective - in case you're wondering why this review is longer than usual. :)

So what does it mean, anyway, to be an introvert, and how is it different from being an extrovert? The differences lie mostly in how we, as introverts and extroverts, process information, how we perceive demands on our time and attention, and how we recharge our faculties. From a neurobiological perspective - on which Quiet places heavy emphasis - several factors come into play. (This is easily the most fascinating section of the book, and one that led to many aha! moments and much vigorous nodding every time I came across something that resonated with my experiences.) 

For introverts, the neural pathways that transmit information are apparently not only different but also longer; the frontal cortex - governing abstract thought, planning and decision-making - is larger and denser with gray matter. In layperson's terms, it means that new information or external stimulus is processed within more sections of the brain, its purport is weighed more carefully, and more associations with existing information are attempted. But before you rejoice or feel jealous (depending on who you are): all this cool computing doesn't come for free - introverts tend to display slower response times to new and complex information; nor does it necessarily infer a superior brain - what an extrovert may perceive as a manageable and engaging amount of stimuli can easily overload an introvert's brain. 

Of course, it's not as scary as it sounds. You don't see introverts everywhere melting down from shorting their brain circuits. The brain is way more resilient - it doesn't take much to bounce back from the overstimulation of crowded parties or loud concerts. Such experiences can be a lot of fun even for introverts, albeit in smaller doses. Extroverts, on the other hand, are fueled by such activities, and find themselves completely in their element. How do they thrive in high-stimulation environments? The answer is dopamine: the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and reward-seeking behaviour. As it turns out, extroverts have low sensitivity to this mood-boosting chemical. Not only can they handle more of it, their circuits are wired to crave more of it. 

I've seen this in action with the numerous extroverts among my family and friends. (On a side note, this pairing happens quite often, be it with close friends or partners. Probably because we have much to fascinate, and also learn from, each other.) They are high energy folks, who turn strangers into friends with relative ease. They range from warm and personable to frank and opinionated, but they never lack things to say, nor are ever hesitant to express themselves. They put themselves square in the onslaught of people and activities, unfazed and even excited. 

When it comes to the positive traits of extroverts, I admit to being a bit jealous at times. For many introverts, it would be fascinating to truly feel how an extrovert feels like, to jump headlong into new experiences, to pause the ever-churning thoughts for a bit and live in the moment. On the other hand, an introvert's high sensitivity and low reward-affinity bring a gamut of traits like introspection, perseverance, prudence and best of all: imagination. Building a rich inner world and toying with ideas at length can give birth to amazing and powerful ideas; ideas that make the world a better place. The work of Gandhi, Einstein, Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling might vouch for that. 

I'm not silly enough (and neither is Cain) to presume that these traits are exclusive to introverts, just as openness to experience and ease of expression are not the domain of extroverts alone. If that were true, what a dull world we'd be living in! In reality, there are no full-blown introverts or extroverts - we all fall somewhere along the scale. The extremes are just abstractions that exist to clarify the concepts. Moreover, every trait is learnable by everyone; the brain is not a static organ but an ever-evolving entity. It's just that based on temperament and environment, some qualities come relatively easy to people, while others can only be hard-won. 

But even as we celebrate the contributions of well-known introverts, as a society we are dismissive of introversion as a way of living. The book raises important concerns about how we've come to lionize the extrovert ideal. Instead of seeing the two types as natural variances, we placed extroversion on a pedestal and relegated its counterpart to second place. In doing so, we've labelled introversion an inconvenience, an impediment to overcome. Luckily for me, this was not true while growing up; even Cain notes that in eastern countries, which are more traditional and collective-based, it is extroversion that is usually shunned. Children are taught to think before they speak and exert caution in general. But taken to an extreme, that too is not ideal, as it stunts extroverted kids from being their true selves.

I do wish Quiet had a more balanced perspective and appreciation of the "other side". Given that its main focus is to clarify the nature of introversion and give a boost of validation to us folks, I did not expect to find a lot about what makes our counterparts tick. But the subtle and insidious belittling of the extroverted way was off-putting. Many references to extroversion indirectly reinforced the benefits of being an introvert (or having one on board), and highlighted the regrettable choices of extroverts, who were portrayed to act on impulse and the desire for reward-buzz. Regardless of disclaimers, I couldn't help feeling that Cain's writing came from a place of believing the introverted nature to be better. It did prompt me to find out more about extroversion on my own, and I learned quite a few interesting facts that I wouldn't have known otherwise, indirectly thanks to this book. 

Quiet meanders into self-help territory at times, doling out one too many workplace case studies of introverts (the arc invariably being: X was dissatisfied and unsure of her place, but she eventually understood how to leverage her unique traits, and ended up bringing a new perspective to her work environment). However, it never turns into preachy self-help, with advice on how to "unearth your hidden exuberance" and "blossom into your true poised self" (à la "How to Win Friends and Influence People"), as if one wouldn't be a fully functioning member of society otherwise. For not encouraging that narrative alone, I feel compelled to give it extra points. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - 3 stars

A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

How to attract a bibliophile's interest? Write a book about books; insert 'book', 'bookstore' or 'library' in said book's title; design a gorgeous cover filled with books - oh, and make them glow in the dark for good measure. Way before actually reading it, I fell in love with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore for the same reasons - in more or less the same order.

The first thing that came to my mind after actually reading it: the universe loves throwing a wrench into excitement of any kind. You see, in my mind this was somehow the book meant to usher in an year of amazing reads, the One Book that would break my reviewing dry spell. And of course it's the one I ended up being most unsure of - ever. So... where to even start?

Don't get me wrong: Mr. Penumbra's stays true to the promise of its most fascinating title. A bookstore that's never closed, not once in all its history. Narrow stacks of bookshelves so tall they go up, up and away into the shadows. Thousands of volumes by unknown writers, in an unrecognized language. Eccentric customers dropping in at odd hours, requesting obscure books. Never to purchase, but to check out using member cards printed with the store's mystical logo, as if it were a secret library of sorts.

And that's just a sample of the bookstore's allure and mystery, as revealed by the observations of Clay Jannon. He is an out-of-job web designer who lands the position of night clerk at the bookstore. Intrigued by the unusual happenings, he enlists the help of some friends to make sense of what Mr. Penumbra's patrons are up to. The discovery leads to some wholly unexpected and drastic consequences.

A story so steeped in century-old bookstores and leather-bound books, I assumed, would be charming in a vintage way. I'm happy to be wrong; Mr. Penumbra's is a love letter addressed to gorgeous hardcovers and sturdy kindles, to secret knowledge gained by persistent minds and the power of open technology to solve problems. Some of the key events even unfold within Google's headquarters, romanticized as a citadel of human intelligence and technology. In many ways, Mr. Penumbra's is a delightful meeting point of old and new worlds, and becomes increasingly riveting as more and more astonishing layers are peeled away.

So, why just 3 stars for what sounds like a wonderful read? Well... for one, the element of surprise and thrill could have been handled way better. In spite of enormous scope for heart-thudding-in-ribcage moments, they end up being wasted opportunities. The core premise is also predictable - given that it's a book about books, more than anything else. Roadblocks are resolved too easily, with just the right connections and resources coming along as and when needed. But the main problem is irksome and unrelatable characters.

Clay comes across as boring and detached - even in the middle of exciting events. Mr. Penumbra and Kat Potente, Clay's super-smart romantic interest, start off as interesting characters. But like everybody else, they are seen only through Clay's perspective, making them fuzzy and one-dimensional. And then there's Neel Shah, that awful amalgamation of two bad tropes: hero's token Asian friend and geek obsessed with female anatomy. But instead of a fat white geek living in parents' basement, we get a successful Indian health-junkie entrepreneur. And that's my biggest grudge: you can't just flip outward traits to whitewash a poorly written stereotype. One bad portrayal of geeks is no less derogatory than the other. In a book so awash with geek culture, it's especially disheartening.

Really then, 3 stars? For a book that takes on so many topics with aplomb, yes. From stimulating conversations ranging from startups to The Singularity, speculations about codes and secret societies, unleashing the power of data visualizations and Hadoop, Mr. Penumbra's has it all. What's more, embedded within this book about books is - a book! It's a fictional fantasy series enchantingly named The Dragon-Song Chronicles. Snippets of it are quoted as clues, as uncanny connections arise between events in the two books. So meta! 

Mr. Penumbra's is a lovely read, if you manage to block out the silly things characters sometimes do, or say, or are. For all its flaws, it redeems itself by underscoring the sweet and memorable connections forged with people over books.