Tag Archives: introversion

Book musings: Quiet

I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking back in February, about a year after I’d reread Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, which may suggest that I find February to be the perfect time to read about people who focus more on their inner worlds than the shared outer world. As around here the outer world is usually frigid and buried under several feet of snow in February, this makes a certain sense. Now it’s November and I’m finally getting around to writing about it, as we get ready for more of that whole frigidity-and-snow thing.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet comes across as a PBS special on introversion in print. I’ve never heard Susan Cain speak, so I don’t know what her voice sounds like. But as I read the book, what I “heard” was a documentary narrator’s voice: those slightly pedagogical tones of someone lecturing on a topic. (An interesting lecture, though. One that you want to hear, not something required for a class that you’re not interested in.) Cain herself is an introvert, but in keeping with the common perception of introverts, she’s not a big presence in her own book. She has a personal anecdote at the beginning, and sprinkles some shorter ones throughout the rest of the book, but for the most part, she tells other people’s stories. Some are historical, such as Dale Carnegie (an early promoter of what Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal), Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are modern: introverts trying to fit in at such extroverted institutions as Harvard Business School or Saddleback Church.

I’ve read books on introversion before, so much of what Cain writes about is familiar territory. Nine months later, it’s the stuff she wrote about that was new to me that I remember the best. Her first chapter is devoted to the development of the Extrovert Ideal, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight…prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt.” I hadn’t known that our society’s focus on personality is a modern phenomenon. Before the twentieth century, people were more interested in a person’s character, traits that run deeper and are seen as more permanent than the personality. Cain credits industrialization and population growth for this change. People can best judge the characters of those they know well. As the country grew and people moved into cities to work, the emphasis shifted to judging first impressions and the other surface traits of personality, and extroverted traits were seen as more likely to lead to success, creating the Extrovert Ideal. Most books on personality (any model, not just the MBTI) tend to deal with the present day and maybe a bit of history of the personality model itself, so I found this history of character vs. personality intriguing.

Another mostly new bit (to me) was the biology of introversion/extroversion. I’d heard some stuff about how introverted babies are more sensitive to stimuli than extroverted ones. Starting there, Cain creates an interesting chain of speculation: biological traits of extroversion, including high stimulation needs → risk-taking behavior → risky decisions → 2007 financial crisis. I lack the background to judge whether this is a solid hypothesis, but I certainly enjoyed reading it (and should probably keep it in mind if I ever reread Sam Harris’s Free Will, which suggests even more strongly that a lot of our apparently conscious decisions are made by unconscious parts of our brains).

Not all parts of Quiet were equally fascinating to me. I’m not in the corporate world, and a lot of Cain’s book focuses on that area. In the last part, where Cain turns to teaching readers how to best manage their introversion in an extroverted world, I mostly just nodded a bit and sped up my reading. But overall, it was wonderful reading a whole book on introversion (lovely introversion!). I have a third one lined up for sometime in the months ahead. Maybe February.

Book musings: Party of One

“He seemed nice. Quiet, though. Kept to himself a lot.” You would expect to hear this in which context:

A)     A high-school yearbook

B)     A memorial service

C)      The aftermath of a shooting spree that has left several people dead

If you answered ‘C,’ you aren’t alone. Which is probably why Anneli Rufus wrote this book.

I first encountered Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto as a serendipitous find in a used book store. This must be one of those books that depends on recommendations between friends and chance encounters for sales, since I can’t imagine it being the focus of a multi-city high-profile book tour. I met the book and read it in 2006. I read it again last month, a little anxious that I might not like it as much the second time around—so many books can’t survive a second reading. I need not have worried: I still like the book, I still see the same faults in it that I did the first time, and I still want to promote it. Really, the only difference between then and now is that now I have a blog.*

Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto

Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto by Anneli Rufus

This is a book that sings the praises of the solitary lifestyle (yes, I’m discussing it on the day dedicated to romantic togetherness). And praise this lifestyle Rufus does, from pointing out earlier admiration for solitary types in the days of film noir to challenging the stereotype of the loner** as likely mass-murderer. Loners in art, in relationships (not an oxymoron), with religious beliefs, as solo adventurers: Rufus touches upon many aspects of modern life as seen from the solitary viewpoint. It makes for a refreshing read if you’ve gotten tired of hearing how loners are dangerously antisocial,  miserably lonely, socially retarded, and/or mentally ill.

Books that make an impression on you because you see yourself in them are difficult to see objectively. Much of why I like Party of One is because Rufus put into words things that I hadn’t realized I knew until I read them on the page. When I read “Writing is done alone. People do not talk about the things they do alone,” I was so impressed by that observation, I think I posted the quote at three different sites (now four). I was rather proud of myself for not plastering half the book on the Internet, which was a temptation any time I hit a passage that left me going, “Yes, that’s it exactly!” In others’ reviews, I’ve read criticisms that Rufus relies too heavily on anecdotes rather than research, that she repeats herself, that she didn’t have enough material for a book so that her work feels padded. I can tell that this is a book that slipped past my defenses: while I agree with the criticisms, I also don’t care. And that seems to be the way of it for many who read the book: it gets high ratings from people like me who read it and had the “yes, me too!” experience. Others, not so much.

That said, the author and I part ways on her us-against-the-world tone. She refers to nonloners in a contemptuous and patronizing manner, especially in the first few chapters. Like super-rich food, a rant or two was satisfying, but I found a steady stream of ranting to be distasteful. I finally hauled out the dictionary and reviewed the definition of manifesto, just in case I’d misunderstood and a harsh stance was mandatory (nope:  it’s simply “a public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition). It left me frustrated; it’s difficult to press a good book on friends if you’re reasonably certain that it’s going to take jabs either at them or their friends and family. Indeed, if you’ve got an extrovert willing to learn more about how the solitary quarter lives, you might want to start with Jonathan Rauch’s classic article in The Atlantic, “Caring for Your Introvert” instead.

Go on. Try it. And if you enjoy it, know that you’ll have plenty of fellow fans, none of whom will feel like getting together to discuss it.


*Back in 2006, I would have had to slip discussion of the book into a face to face conversation. Now I can be restrained about the whole thing. It’s just a blog post. If I’ve intrigued you, I’ve given you enough information to find the book on your own. If you’re not interested, you can just click away to another site. And if you know me in real life, be relieved that I haven’t yet bought a loaning copy and shoved it into your hands with a wild light in my eyes.

**Rufus prefers the term loner to introvert and I see her point. But, probably because I learned the term through lay exposure to the MBTI rather than Jung’s original writings, I understand introvert to mean what she means by loner. So I bounce between those terms and between nonloners and extroverts for those people the book isn’t about.