Book Review: Susan Cain’s Quiet

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

I happened to win the book ‘Quiet’ as a Christmas party book giveaway; everyone got a book, though we chose them on the basis of a mysterious clue. Mine was ‘Shhh…’ and afterwards I was disappointed that I hadn’t won what I think was one of the other books, Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’, which I’ve wanted to read.

On the other hand, a book on introverts, and their counterparts, extroverts, was particularly appropriate at the time. I went to the Christmas party as a way to meet the other consultants in the copywriting business, and to be gracious in response to being invited. I partly went as a ‘why not?’ gesture but I also admit that I’m not nearly as social as I once was, and can find chat with strangers draining. In any case, I enjoyed the party and I got this book!

I’ve always considered myself as an extrovert, a somewhat radical one, as I had a long period of being desperately social, had the capacity to keep in touch and communicate with friends and acquaintances like no one else, and could occasionally work an entire room of strangers, easily. But though the book implies a fairly strong divide between extroverts and introverts, these days I’m very quiet, have a small social group and socialise much less. In any case, an interesting case study to read this book.

Scarily, the book, though written in 2012, is an indictment of our times. Cain traces an American move from a culture that valued character and thoughtfulness to a society where personality and performance are ascendant. She would have a lot to say about Trump, the pinnacle moment of a culture where brashness and confidence trumps substance or thought.

The book makes a slightly too strong case for this phenomenon at a world level, but of course, America does affect the rest of the world, and this tone is familiar to me. ‘Quiet’ is very similar to so many other best-selling books of the last decade, Gladwell’s social psychology books, Freakonomics or the like: well-researched books written in a personal tone that focus on a core set of engaging ideas and doled out in digestible chapters. They all seem to come out of the USA, and are great for dinner party conversations.

The other point which feels to me somewhat forced is the cri de coeur that the world values only extroverts. True enough. They are louder. But the proposal that the world and various species need different types of personalities to survive and thrive seems evident enough already. Our world is not binary, nor a zero-sum game. But I suppose it makes a more compelling marketing story to aim the book at introverts who feel misunderstood or undervalued (and people who love them).

As an aside, like in the last Gladwell book I read, she uses the example of Asian-Americans as one of her case studies of quieter cultures and introverts (Gladwell linked Asian-American success, or at least the success of some Cantonese immigrants, to rice-planting). I find these done so simplistically, and in a way that doesn’t reflect the lived experience of Asian-Americans, never accounting for issues of racism and self-esteem, I really find them irksome. Argh!

But other than that, I found the book an OK read, and it would be a great one for the introvert in your life.

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