Book reviews

I sometimes get in the habit of reading a huge amount of news articles and blogs, often about a single subject over the course of a couple of days. Maybe it’s about sequestration, or Zero Dark Thirty, but in any event, reading about current events can wear me down mentally. It’s usually then that I shut down the computer and try and spend more time reading books, which manages to feel refreshing.

I had a chance to read a couple of very informative non-fiction books over the past couple of months. The first is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The second is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which I mentioned in a previous post about prospect theory.

I have mixed feelings about popular science books. When I say popular science, I basically mean Malcolm Gladwell books, like Blink, which try to decipher large volumes of psychological research into something for the average reader. The writing is clear, fun and breezy, and you feel like you’ve gained some significant knowledge about the world. The major danger in Gladwell’s Blink (the only one I have read) is that they are deceptively easy. Research into the mind is hard, and often messy, and the picture the reader receives is one of complete certainty, when that is far from the case. Furthermore, Gladwell introduces a compelling thesis of his own based on a selective reading of research, and the evidence for this thesis seems less convincing as the book goes on. Late in books he seems to come up with examples that he has to almost manipulate into his original thesis. This was my experience with Blink, anyway.

The Power of Habit is sort of like Gladwell’s books in the way it tries to approach complex science into the mind in an easy-to-read manner, but it manages to avoid most of the problems. Charles Duhigg, like Gladwell, has a general thesis, that habits overwhelm and determine huge amounts of our life, and he proceeds to expound on this through an omniscient narration of compelling events while interjecting with analysis and discovery. The early part of the book looks at a man who lost his ability to generate new memories, but still, he seemed to learn some things by way of habit, and even he seemed unaware that this was happening. Later the book delves into other fascinating examples, like Starbucks employee training and Target’s data operations which try to capture pregnant shoppers by sending them coupons earlier than their competitors.

Duhigg does a good job of illustrating different examples, as well as admitting the complexity of habits in different scenarios. Ultimately, at the end of the book, I did feel like I had a much firmer grasp of my own habits, and how I could improve upon them (and replace the bad ones). I also found myself thinking more about everyday activities that I had taken for granted. I finished the book a few days ago, but I still find myself thinking about parts of the book, and in particular, how I could apply the lessons in the book to my life. There’s a short Appendix focusing on this, so that’s helpful.

The drawbacks of the book are what appear in any kind of popular science book. In its efforts to draw in the reader, the narration is a bit too accurate and precise. This is common in journalism, where the writer paints a compelling picture of a character and some kind of nuance in his or her behavior before delving into some discovery or struggle, but it seems to me a bit too much like fiction in some instances.

The summary of research into the mind is generally good and nuanced, but the book also delves into some areas where I felt like Duhigg was trying too hard to fit examples into his thesis. There’s an example about Rosa Parks and the associated boycotts, and also Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. The accounts are compelling, and it is interesting to hear about them from the perspective of habits and social networks, but ultimately I felt these were out of place in the context of the rest of the book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is a completely different kind of book. Kahneman is a Nobel winning psychologist and economist, and he provides a very serious look at a massive amount of research into the way the mind works. The writing is precise and to the point even as Kahneman tackles extremely complex topics and scenarios. The writing here is not in the mode of Gladwell or Duhigg, as there are no cheap attempts at story-telling just to draw the reader in. The chapters are heavy and full of information; I found each chapter compelling but I had trouble reading more than 2-3 in one sitting.

I learned a great deal about how irrational we are from Kahneman’s book, and even though it was a slower, more difficult and draining read, whatever I learned was incredibly rewarding. There were several chapters I read multiple times because they were both complex and delightful in what they revealed. The book covers a wide array of topics, so it is more difficult to summarize vs. The Power of Habit, which has a specific thesis in mind, so I’ll leave that job to Amazon. You can also see my previous post mentioning prospect theory here.

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