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Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking wasn’t a book I expected to like. It’s part self-help, part autobiography, part popular science, and part personality guide, and for a long while I resisted reading it on the basis that it would likely be unscientific nonsense that would make me angry. Yet the positive reviews kept coming, and I eventually felt that I had to read it to see what all the fuss was about.

I opened the book, still expecting to be angered, and started reading about how the world is made up of introverts and extroverts. I started to feel a little twitched: there are few things that irritate me more than self-help books that segment (often dichotomising) the population on their own spurious terms, and then offer “solutions” for existing as or dealing with a member of a particular segment. The commonest example is the entire industry that has grown up around the nonsense that is Myers-Briggs personality typing. Reading Quiet, though, I was quickly disarmed by Cain’s own discussion of how life isn’t that simple: all people have introvert and extrovert traits, and the population cannot be simply segmented. Behaviours, even, cannot be dichotomised. How refreshing!

And yet, Cain’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject sometimes spills over into long passages which appear to negate her statements about the lack of dichotomy. It also fairly quickly settles into a repeated cycle of discussing individuals who exhibit particular traits, assigning the important traits to introversion, and then discussing some of the (sometimes spurious) science about why introverts exhibit this trait. Occasionally – and especially towards the end – a good measure of “self-help” guidance is thrown in too.

Quiet is also very heavily focused on the USA, both in terms of the individuals discussed, and the cultural context in which the book is set. The central thesis of the book is that quiet people make large contributions to society, and are sometimes less recognised in popular culture because they fight less to be heard. I’m not sure that this is quite the surprising revelation that Cain sets it up to be.

I’m certain that many people find reading this book to be validating: as much is clear from the many millions of words written in praise of the book, with headlines like “Finally” and “Vindication at last”. I waver between thinking that this is a fantastic and helpful to many people, and thinking that there’s a danger of over-validation of preconceived ideas (“I’m brilliant, it’s just that the world doesn’t appreciate my brilliance because I’m an introvert”).

Now that I’ve spent four paragraphs picking fault, I feel that I should emphasise that this is a cut above most similar books, and I largely enjoyed the experience of reading it. There were parts where I metaphorically nodded my head in agreement, which is unusual for this type of book – I’m usually too incensed by the roughshod way in which authors ride over science and evidence. Cain is much more light-footed, and makes arguments that were, at the very least, superficially persuasive enough to sweep me along as a reader, even if they didn’t convince me that the society and the world needed to change.

Quiet is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 2,082nd post was filed under: Book Reviews.

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