Outliers: What does it take to be an expert?

March 13, 2009

10,000 hours.  According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers:  The Story of Success, that’s how many hours of practice it takes to become an expert.  Sigh.  As I started this book I wondered if I would feel deficient.  I don’t think I’ve put 10,000 hours into anything except maybe reading, and I’m far from an expert reader.  Gladwell’s thesis for the book is exploring why some people succeed and some never live up to their potential.  While the 10,000 hour bit is an interesting piece of trivia, it is not the entire point of Gladwell’s book.  What Gladwell does is destroy the idea that anyone is a self-made anything, arguing that geography, culture, economics and plain luck in some cases influence success.  However, underlying most stories of success is hard work.  Very few successes happen overnight, something that should be reassuring to those of us toiling away in the trenches. 

Most of this fairly slim book is intriguing and provocative, but I felt Gladwell’s last chapter or two were weak.  However, Outliers is an interesting read and will challenge your ideas of how a successful person is made.


The Battle for Christmas: Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2008

Today and tomorrow as we gather with family to celebrate Christmas, admire a beautifully decorated Christmas tree,  possibly attend midnight mass or some other religious service, keep an ear out for sleigh bells and the arrival of Santa Claus and exchange gifts, it will seem as if those Christmas traditions have been with us forever.  Surely Christmas has always been celebrated that way! As  Stephen Nissenbaum points out in The Battle for Christmas, however, Christmas is a relatively recent invention.   The Battle for Christmas traces the development of Christmas primarily in the United States from the 17th-19th centuries and how it changed from a raucous celebration that more closely resembled Halloween with alcohol, feasting, costumes, class inversion and chants demanding tribute or else a trick would be played to the domestic, child-centered holiday it has become.

This was a really interesting book.  Some of what Nissenbaum discusses I already knew…for example that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas and even banned its celebration due to the raucous way it was celebrated with drinking, carousing, and gluttony.  The early church had placed Christmas in December in order to take advantage of existing pagan celebrations that time of year, hoping to put a Christian spin on those celebrations.  What really surprised me was how much Christmas celebrations reflected the social and economic structures of various times and how efforts to tame Christmas were a response to the  changes in society brought by the Industrial Revolution and the breaking of old bonds of service and social change.  As society changed, especially in the United States where cities were becoming chaotic and busy due to immigration and poor economic conditions, Christmas moved inside to focus on the family. 

Nissenbaum neatly punches holes in many of our beliefs about our cherished Christmas traditions.  The wealthy Knickerbocker set in New York City, dismayed over what was happening in its streets, channeled their anxiety into creating a holiday spent at home.  One member of this set, Clement Clarke Moore, pens “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” and purposefully makes Santa Claus seem less genteel than the saint upon whom he was purportedly based in order to appeal to his anxious audience.  The Christmas tree appears almost out of nowhere to become part of celebrations.

There’s a lot going on in this book.  It is a little shocking to realize that what you hold dear about the holiday is of fairly recent invention and that was possibly cynically created as a way of exerting social control.  The book isn’t mean spirited, though, and it covers a lot of ground.  As Christmas was evolving, so was commerce, and the development of the concept of gifts and buying gifts is fascinating.  We often complain that Christmas has become so commercial and we would like to return to some authentic celebration.  As Nissenbaum points out, people have been complaining about the commercialization of the holiday since they first began exchanging gifts, so this complaint is nothing new.  The way we celebrate Christmas is authentic!   It was also interesting to read about how children’s place in the family changed as Christmas began to take hold.  While most of the book is set in the North, Nissenbaum does explore Christmas in the South and how it impacted slavery.

Nissenbaum’s focus extends only to the late 19th century, and I would have loved to have read more about Christmas in the 20th century and how it has (or hasn’t) changed.  Since most of the book is set in the North, one obtains a very good idea of how Christmas developed there, but I wonder if there are other critical elements contributed from other parts of the United States that were left out.  As always…did New York lead the way?

This book doesn’t change how I feel about Christmas or will celebrate it.  If anything, it affirms how I’ve felt about the holiday: goodwill, feasting, friends and family.  The spirit of Christmas is ingrained in us and quite possibly part of our collective unconscious. Though tamed, it’s like a release valve that allows some of the pressure from the year to escape.  That’s coming perilously close to the ancient, raucous way of celebrating Christmas, but as the year winds down and winter setting in, we humans need that release. And frankly, in 2008, many of the Christmas traditions that were created in the 19th century are almost 200 years old…that may not be ancient, but it certainly makes them old and established.  Legitimate.

Royal Affairs: British Monarchs Behaving Badly

November 27, 2008

Leslie Carroll’s Royal Affairs:  A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy examines infidelity in the British monarchy from Henry II to Charles, Diana and Camilla.  It is fairly exhaustive and no major lover or mistress is left unturned (no small feat when dealing with a monarch like Charles II).  You have the homosexual lovers of Edward II and James I.  You have Henry VIII’s wives recounted in detail.  You even have Queen Victoria and John Brown whose actual sexual relationship is not seriously believed but as an emotional attachment is included.  I was actually a little disappointed that she ended with Charles, Diana and Camilla because why would I care to read about that old tale again, but Carroll made it interesting. 

My biggest quibble with the book is that Carroll’s writing is extremely dry.  Everything is presented factually and objectively, which is great, but it sort of took the oomph out of a book about GASP! infidelity.  It’s not necessarily a fun book, but you will learn quite a bit since she covers about 800 years of history.

Also recommended:

Bonk: For a good time, call…

November 9, 2008

Because I am in the last, super-busy weeks of the semester, I thought I could use a little diversion, so I was thrilled when Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex arrived for me at the local public library.  Bonk is Mary Roach’s (Stiff, Spook) latest investigative science book.  As its title suggests, it explores the history as well as current focus of sex research.  Chapters deal with whether Kinsey was really a voyeur, what an orgasm is, clitoral research as well as whether orgasm impacts fertility (using pigs!!!) and various machines, tools and strategies for research through the years.

First of all, it is amusing, yet sad the lengths and obfuscations to which scientists have to go to obtain funding for research that even tangetially touches sex.  As a culture, we are obsessed with sex (having more of it, having it better), yet we remain so squeamish about it.  Roach’s latest book tackles the topic with sensitivity, appreciation and also humor because let’s face it, a lot of the lengths researchers had to go to to research sex as well as their hypothoses and experiments are flat-out funny. I’m thinking in particular of the experiments to see how sperm gets into the uterus. Good stuff. And God bless the people who inseminate pigs and other large animals.  Oh, and let’s not forget the sex toy manufacturer she visits (reminded me of an HBO show I watched years ago–nothing like little old ladies adding hair to a dildo to make you do a doubletake) or the man who implants penis pumps. 

I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book as much as I did Roach’s other two books, but it was very interesting.  If anything, I felt like its structure was a bit harder to follow (seemed a bit meandering at times) and that she seemed to explore the same few topics from various angles.  Roach provides numerous footnotes, which are sometimes irritating in sheer volume but are always relevant and humorous.  Roach is a funny writer, and her approach to the topic is perfect. 

Also recommended:

A Southern Belle Primer: Guess mine was lost in the mail?

November 9, 2008

A Southern Belle Primer or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma by Maryln Schwartz was a somewhat bizarre book. Though published in 1991, it seemed like a book from a much earlier period.  It deals with a world in which certain silver patterns are expected on a wedding registry and what those patterns say about the bride registering.  Apparently, chicken salad should never contain dark meat.  I am not a fan of dark meat, so I likely would not have committed that egregious faux pas, but good to know.  It deals with a world in which women become festival queens with elaborate costumes and balls to which women must wear dresses of a certain length or else they will receive a sternly-worded letter. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Southerner born and bred.  I was born in Salisbury, North Carolina and grew up in a town a little west of Winston-Salem.  Therefore, I consider myself Southern.  However, as with the other books set in the South that I have posted about this year, I could not find myself, traditions or experiences in this book.  I wondered if it was age.  As I said, this book seemed to refer to an older generation.  But I also have friends who were honest-to-God debutantes complete with white gown, presentation and debutante ball.  I knwo women who followed the tradition of displaying for guests to view to the wedding gifts received by the bride-to-be.  Soooo…maybe the conclusion I should draw is maybe I am not of that world that book sought to illustrate.  And maybe that’s ok.  After all, I don’t even like iced tea.  It was just a little weird to read this book and feel like there is a whole other South of which I am not a part.  And I sort of have to wonder what attitudes and beliefs are being preserved by participating in those traditions. It’s probably just my childhood wish to be Quality, royalty, nobility that is being dented. 

The book was cute and amusing.  It won’t present foes of the South with anything that would change their mind, but if you are an insider or wannabe belle, you’ll find it instructive.

Panic in Level 4: Passionless Tales about Science

September 20, 2008

Richard Preston’s Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science reads like Preston decided he needed to publish another book and threw together a bunch of old essays.  Preston is well-known for his science writing, including his thriller Hot Zone.

Panic in Level 4 combines essays on the Chudnovskys, genius brothers who built a supercomputer in a cramped NYC apartment in order to calculate pi as far as possible in their quest to discern some sort of pattern; Preston’s old friend Ebola and his visit inside a Level 4 lab and own brush with the virus; the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters and the incredibly difficult attempt to render them digitally for preservation; self-cannibals; Craig Venter’s part in decoding the human genome; and insect parasites destroying huge parts of American forests. 

Some of the essays were more interesting than others.  I enjoy a good killer virus tale, so I liked the Level 4 essay, and the Cloisters one was pretty interesting.  I found the Chudnovskys’ attempt to find over a billion digits of Pi confusing and quixotic, but I’ve stated before that I’m no mathematician.  You can’t argue with how well-written the essays are, but they have little relationship to each other and it’s jarring.  The book isn’t cohesive at all, which I guess is acceptable since it’s not a narrative.  I wonder if the book could have been structured differently.  For example, there was a reference to the self-cannibalism disease in the Venter essay, and then the last chapter of the book was about that disease.  It was jarring to me to read the mention of the disease and then discover the full story later on.

The book simply wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: I cried

August 26, 2008

Yes, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris made me cry.  Granted, they were tears of laughter, but they were tears.  Me Talk Pretty One Day explores Sedaris’ childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, time in college, jobs and eventual move to Paris.  It’s a book about his inability to communicate, and Sedaris has a genius for finding the wit and eccentricity in everyone around him, and it is a gift to the reader.

Most of the book elicitied an occasional guffaw from me.  I don’t know if I expected the entire book to be laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny, but some of the essays were sad.  I often wanted Sedaris to get his act together, finding some accounts painful and a little too revealing.  I guess I expected Sedaris’ success to mean that his life was somehow “together” even though I should know better. 

The part I enjoyed the most was Sedaris’ time in France.  I cried with laughter at his experiences trying to learn French and how he and his fellow students tried to explain Easter–in pidgen French– to a Muslim classmate.  Deep, can’t breathe, not nearly as funny to anyone else as it was to me kind of sobs. 

Sedaris, you may not be a native Southerner, and your family may have tried to keep you from becoming one, but to me, you are an honorary one.  You are too eccentric not to be.