Quiet - Susan Cain
A FaceBook pal, the Berlin based journalist Kate Ferguson, put me on to this. Frankly, thank goodness she did, and here's why. For as long as I can remember I've dreaded large social gatherings and, if I do work up the courage to go along, feel shattered for days afterwards. Open plan offices too are my idea of hell. So much so that I think I may have ended up working in Sales at one time so as not to have sit in an office with a bunch of other people. In those days my colleagues would joke that I had a trapdoor under my desk. Blink and I was gone. True as well that I used to grab a sandwich and eat it alone in my car in the underground car park where I worked. We had a fantastic canteen but I just had to get away. Be in my own space.
It's simple really, I need solitude and realise, after reading 'Quiet', that I'm not alone. Far from it. In fact around a third of the population feel as I do. But that's not to say I hate people. Quite the opposite. I love chatting with friends and family over dinner, coffee or drinks. Best of all for me are lengthy one-on-one chats with a close pal, or my wife and kids. Combine this with walking and food, and/or throw in a decent bottle of wine and I'm in heaven. So I don't dislike people at all. However the reality is that I find most so-called social gatherings deeply antisocial. The noise, the fragmented conversations, the rowdiness all overload my senses. For a long time I reckoned I was just odd and tried to cover up, usually by drinking way too much. What was wrong with me? Why did I feel the need to sneak home early? Why was I miserable inside when everyone else seemed to he having such a great time? Most seem to genuinely enjoy what I've just described after all. And there's nothing wrong with that. Best of luck to them. It just isn't for me. Actually it isn't me full-stop. And now I know there are tens of millions out there who feel just as I do.
According to Susan Cain it's not just parties that present a problem. For a myriad complex and convoluted reasons the extrovert personality has become seen as the ideal in Western Society. Think about it, more and more offices are open 'Google HQ' type spaces. Kids are browbeaten into playing team sports at a tender age, made to feel like weirdos if they don't engage on the football or hockey pitch. These days too in all likelihood one of the first questions you'll be asked in a job interview is 'are you a team player?' I'd stake a fair bet that if you answered 'No' you wouldn't get the job. So what are the rest of us supposed to do - those who enjoy their own company, who work best alone, who love taking long walks, love reading, love thinking, love writing, love watching box-sets back to back etc. etc.? There's another huge issue at play too, because being an introvert does not necessarily entail being socially awkward and shy. To use a personal example I think if those who know me well were asked to describe my personality they'd probably say I'm a bit loud, fairly gregarious and have a daft over-the-top sense of humour. And I guess they're right. My voice, and laugh, can probably be heard above the ozone layer. But I love reading, doing crosswords, writing and studying amongst many other solitary pursuits.
So, we're in a bit of a dilemma. And it's all the more bizarre when you consider that the best thinking is done alone. Steve Jobbs of Apple was an introvert. Bill Gates of Microsoft is an introvert. Einstein was an introvert. I could go on and on here. The point is though that without time alone, time to think, time to contemplate, we'd have little or no 'eureka moments.' Part of what I do as a Feature Writer is interview entrepreneurs across the globe. I'd hazard a guess that pretty much all their respective business ideas came about through quiet contemplation and consideration. In short humanity needs introverts. How come then that such a stigma has become attached to it?
After reading this book, which I believe to be a genuinely important work, I think the term introvert is partly to blame. It conjures up negative images. On the other hand if somebody were termed a thinker, an artist, a writer or a philosopher that's pretty positive to say the least. Susan Cain identifies, with the help of MRI scanner research, that there is strong scientific evidence to suggest that we introverts are more sensorily sensitive than our more outgoing crowd-loving counterparts. This is fascinating stuff. To put it plainly we simply overload at parties. It's all too much - the snippets of ever louder conversations, people saying Hi, getting in our personal space and, worst of all, the dreaded 'organised fun' causes a fight or flight reaction. What extroverts consider fun can be our idea of hell.
If any of this sounds familiar I urge you to read 'Quiet'. If any of this sounds totally unfamiliar I urge to read 'Quiet' as you'll gain massive insight into how 1 in 3 of us are feeling. Who knows, you may even be married to an introvert and not realise it. You may be an introvert and not realise it. Susan Cain's message is compelling, the evidence strong and well-researched. All in all 'Quiet' is a fascinating piece of work and clearly a labour of love. I'd go as far as to say, that for me, it's life-changing.
For more about the Quiet Revolution, Susan's work and to find out if you're an Introvert or Extrovert click below:
I give you one of the world's most eccentric and atmospheric bookshops. My absolute pleasure to interview the inimitable Gianni Coppola of Libreria Acqua Alta for Open Skies magazine. Bathtubs and gondolas full of books - a literary staircase - cats aplenty - all with Luigi & Gianni running the show. And, you can rent a room and stay above. If in Venice, walk away from the crowd and make your way instead to Libreria Acqua Alta for a visit you'll never forget.
Life of Pi
'It's a closely held secret among Indian zookeepers that in 1971 Bara the polar bear escaped from the Calcutta Zoo. She was never heard from again...'
It may seem strange to be reviewing a book first published in 2001 that then went on to win the Man Booker Prize. But strange is what I do, and besides I hadn't read it until now so guess that may also be the case with some of you at least. Anyway, a damn good read never goes stale does it?
Life of Pi came to me the way books of old used to, when my school pals and I, mainly my fellow bookworms Chris, Derek & Bruce, would swap books with each other and have heated breaktime discussions as to their merit or otherwise. Such was how I discovered Catch 22, The Godfather and the brilliant Tom Sharpe novels amongst countless others. Great days indeed. This time my eldest daughter handed me a dog-eared copy and said, 'Dad. You'll love this.'
I haven't watched the film, and I suspect many of you haven't either. Being honest the trailer left me cold, the premise seemed ridiculous, and I'm no particular fan of CGI. Well, I'm going to damn well watch it now because the book is brilliant, dare I say it a work of genius. If heading away on holiday grab a copy. If like me you become instantly addicted it may last 3 or 4 days so grab something else too.
Yann Martel weaves such magic into this tale that belief does not have to be suspended. This reader was hooked by the end of page 1. The prose is light, amusing, insightful and downright entertaining from start to finish. That Pi is an abbreviation of 'Piscine', as the central character was named after a swimming pool in France, the Piscine Militor, is a sheer delight. Pi is the outsider, the misfit, the eccentric, a believer in all religions and none, an everyman and a nobody. In short he's a brilliant hero and narrator, although as we discover in relation to the latter quite possibly a highly unreliable one.
Life of Pi is a book for everyone, I'd happily recommend it to a 10-year old as much as a discerning adult reader. I'm not going to go into the plot or bore you with endless quotes and reasons to read it. I'll simply steals my daughter's words instead, 'You'll love it', or I'm a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker...
Bookworm Rating - 4 out of 5
'It's about nothing and it's about everything. Just read it.'
So went my friend Tony's recommendation of Stoner. I take Tony's advice seriously so immediately started dropping pre-Christmas hints to the other half. Stoner dutifully turned up in my Christmas stocking and I read the final pages about a week ago. Being honest I could have finished it off a lot sooner but as with all great reads prolonging the inevitable end goes with the territory and is an essential part of the torturous joy. Taking my reluctant leave of William Stoner's company was indeed sweet sorrow.
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
John Williams, like his 'Everyman' creation William Stoner, was a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Missouri. They say every character an author creates is a version of him/herself. If that's the case here, which I suspect it is, no surprise then that Williams' novel soared 20 years after his death in 1994. I could imagine a similar fate for Stoner himself. His heartfelt endeavours appear to come to nothing, he seems hopelessly lost, out of touch with his emotions, and unable to come to terms with everyday dilemmas. Stoner is an underachiever. Throughout I found myself mentally screaming at him to get his act together, to be who he is, to realise his potential. Yet I recognised myself, and countless others, and it was a painful yet utterly compelling process.
“He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.”
William Stoner is somebody and nobody. He's you, he's me. He's success and failure, expectation and humiliation, desire and despair, life and death. Put quite simply Stoner is the most eloquent portrayal I have ever read of what it means to be human. No life is ordinary. That's why we should all read this book. As Tony succinctly put it, 'Just read it.'
Bookworm Rating (Max 5) 5
The Humans - Matt Haig
Ok - let's dive headfirst into The Humans by Matt Haig. Once you've started you won't want to put down this fantastically quirky tale and for my money it's the best read so far this year. So much so I just revisited the story and found it even more enjoyable second time around. (This blog's a great excuse for a bit of self-indulgence.)
Anyway, the picture should give you some idea where I'm coming from. In an attempt to be conscientious I thought I'd mark lines and passages which made me guffaw, brought a tear to the eye, whacked me over the head with moments of self-recognition or simply gave pause for thought. As you can see there were many, so many in fact I ran out of those luminous sticky things and took to folding pages instead.
I am scared.
Without giving too much away the central character Andrew Martin is a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He's a self-obsessed genius. He solves one of the thorniest problems in Maths - the Reimann hypothesis. It's a step too far for humanity (after all we're destructive and dangerous enough already) so in a Galaxy far, far away the decision is made to eliminate Martin before he can spill the mathematical beans. Once that's done anyone he may have told of his breakthrough must also be eradicated. Who better to perform the task than Martin himself? An alien kills the Professor and inhabits his body.
Advice for a human
There's an ambiguity throughout I really like. I was never terribly sure if Andrew Martin had simply suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown. He's a workaholic egomaniac so it's not beyond the realms of possibility. He's just achieved his lifetime's goal - perhaps it pushed him over the edge. The point is that it doesn't matter. Here we have a case of the unreliable narrator and it works a treat. Through the eyes of Andrew Martin 'Mk2' human vanity, ambition, delusion, compassion and passion are placed under the microscope in equal measure and laid bare. However none of this is done in a lecturing didactic manner. On the contrary, Matt Haig manages to capture the conflicting nature of our complicated species with great humour, enviable ease, rare understanding and remarkable insight.
Advice for a human
Seemingly diverse subjects such as Applied Mathematics, Physics, Poetry (specifically Emily Dickenson), Pop and Classical Music, Architecture, Alienation, Infidelity, Love, Mortality and how Man's Best Friend (in this case a superb Springer Spaniel named Newton) should really be treated are tackled with an intelligent sensitive touch. The interconnected nature of our improbable world and the incalculable dilemma of the human condition lies at the heart of the book.
Terrific story-telling holds a mirror up to us all. When a novel truly captivates we don't merely empathise or sympathise with the characters, for a time we inhabit their skin. When the tale is done something of them remains. They are us and we are them. The Humans will stay with me and I know I'll take great pleasure in revisiting it time and time again. Well, we're all human and in it together after all. Do yourself a favour - read the The Humans.
Bookworm Rating (Max 5): 5
So many books - so little time. Oddly enough here I'll be posting about books. Feel free to agree, disagree but hopefully not remain ambivalent.