Quiet had been on my wish list for a long time. Ever since I first saw a review by Teresa on Shelf Love. There is something wonderful about reading about a book that you feel might be an exact fit for you as a person and at this particular moment in your life. When Quiet, a book about introversion, its delimitations, but also its strengths that society so often forgets, took the blogosphere by storm last year, I had been unemployed for a while. During that time, I learned a great deal about how uncomfortable I was with presenting myself to the world as something worth considering, as something noticeable even. Even during the studies for my masters degree, and obviously in the many many years before that, I had encountered the same old criticism again and again: you are knowledgeable, you reason well, you have a lot of qualifications, you just need to come out of your shell a little, give us a little more *oomph*, sparkle when you present yourself to others. When you are an introvert, like me, and a shy and insecure one at that, these words can be pretty damning. As much as I know what people want or expect from me, I might not be able to give it to them. And I know that I am likely to fail on the sparkling social part in strange settings, which makes the cycle go on and on and on.
I am sorry to burden you with that rather depressing story. But it is something I cannot avoid telling when talking about Quiet, because it directy motivated my choice to read this book. What Susan Cain does in her book is look at thepersistent idea that extraversion is better than introversion. She tackles just how prejudiced we collectively are to prefer extraversion over introversion, and how in our cultural expectations, we are short-selling ourselves by paying too little attention to the possibility of a more healthy balance between the two.
And so Cain gives us chapters on the rise of the extrovert ideal in America (this book is focused on US society, but most of what is described is prevalent in Dutch culture as well), the idea of charismatic leadership, the rise of group work over individual creativity, (biological) research into introversion and extraversion, introversion in the work place and at school, etcetera. Intermixed are stories about people discovering their introversion and how they deal with it, and some very practical tips on how to navigate an extravert world as an introvert.
What I appreciated most in Susan Cain’s Quiet was how much of my own thoughts, fears, feelings, but also character appreciation I found echoed in it. At long last, here was someone telling me that I am not strange, that in fact a lot more people are introvert than we might expect (although not always coupled with other things like shyness). That more people need their quiet time, have sleepless nights before presenting, or perhaps love presenting but are introverted in other situations. I also really liked how she continued to give advice, without only soothing us with understanding. There are pragmatic tips on how to organise your work days so as to avoid a “social overload” if you need quiet time. But there are also statements that make it clear that introversion in “a world that can’t stop talking” means you sometimes have to act more extrovert than you are. Tips to accept yourself for who you are so as to remain healthy. And to fight for the things that make you happiest, even if they require some extraversion sometimes (but that this is possible, because you know you are working towards what you like most). Perhaps this sounds like obvious advice, to some extent it is, but seeing it on page, in a very readable and sympathetic book, having it contextualised, does help.
Overall then, Quiet was exactly the kind of book I needed to read with the past year, and my current adjustment to working life, in mind. I know I say it more often, but I literally hugged this book close. And often. I underlined a lot of passages (something which I never do) as a form of personal therapy. There were daily situations that I could directly relate to what’s in there, and it was great to read about it, recognise it, and think of possible ways of dealing with it, or just feeling the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.
Part cultural history, part self-help, part social critique, and part psychological/biological study, Quiet is an interesting book for any one who considers him or herself an introvert. And perhaps also for those who are extraverts and want to understand more about their introvert fellow humans.
There were two things that I found less than perfect in Quiet though. One is a stylistic complaints. Cain starts (almost?) every chapter with an anecdote about a person she knew or heard about and provided that story as a setting to explore the chapter’s topic. I completely understand use of the device. How often have I not been advised to begin my essays with an anecdote? But after a few chapters, it became a little tiring. This might be because I rushed through this book much quicker than might have been anticipated by the author and editor, or it might just be a personal preference. Either way, it is not such a big deal.
What I do think a bigger deal is the essentialism, moreover the biological essentialism, that can often be encountered in this book. Despite the fact that Cain mentions from time to time that extraversion and introversion are no absolute categories (even briefly raising that some claim they do not work as categories), from time to time she definitely veered into the direction of approaching them as such. I wonder if part of my resistance towards this was caused by the fact that some chapters list so many positive aspects of introversion, and me not being used to seeing myself in solely positive terms, that my more pessimistic side automatically started to resist. As much as that might play a role, I think there is a deeper problem at play. When I think of something like introversion or extraversion, much like gender, I think of cultural categories, and as such I do not want to designate them as absolute. Cain, in her book, often explores the two in the form of biological/psychological research, in which the two categories seem to be almost taken for granted, and furthermore, are linked to genetic origins. Again, to be fair, Cain does raise questions about these ideas, and I feel she tried to do justice to both sides of the nature/nurture debate. However, to my taste, these questions were perhaps not raised often enough and she sometimes clearly seems to favour the nature side of the argument. And at these times the book made me feel a little uncomfortable.
All in all, I found Quiet a very worthwhile read. It was extremely helpful to me. Not only to help me accept who I am, but also to highlight the things I can work on within the bounds of who I am. Cultural history and social critique is never wasted on me, and I very much enjoyed these parts of the books. The parts that explored the possible biological origins of introversion… not so much. Nevertheless, I am very glad that I finally read Quiet. And I’m pretty sure I’ll end up reading it again in the upcoming years, or perhaps just a chapter or two when I need a little encouragement after facing another networking event or public speaking adventure.
Other Opinions: Shelf Love, Medieval Bookworm, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Bibliophile by the Sea, The Indextrous Reader, So Many Books, Book-a-Rama, Boston Bibliophile, Things Mean a Lot, Devourer of Books, 1330v, Joy’s Book Blog, Take Me Away, That’s What She Read.
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