Month: October 2014

In Praise of Introverts: Susan Cain’s Quiet


It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized I am a classic introvert.  I dislike meeting new people.  I find groups of more than four people challenging, and crowds unbearable.  I hate loud noise.  I prefer to socialize once a week and sometimes even less often, with only one or two people at a time.  Even this amount of “socializing” exhausts me.   I have always hated pointless chit-chat, and find it difficult to talk at all.  This difficulty increases exponentially with people I don’t know and in groups.  Especially in groups, I feel disembodied and paralyzed, as though I don’t have a tongue.

If you don’t know me very well, and have heard me talking, it is the result of years of practice.

The positives: I am happy when alone.  I am content to spend large amounts of time by myself, working on various projects.  I have never found it difficult to become absorbed in detailed labor of various sorts–studying, practicing a musical instrument, writing–for hours on end.  I have never been susceptible to peer pressure.  I am extremely susceptible to pain and depression, but also to the enjoyment of nature, music, and beauty.

Being an introvert never held me back in the small pond of my hometown.  Because I was academically talented, I stood out.  Some adults even admired me for being so quiet, and encouraged the tendency.  In particular, I remember a youth pastor who recommended me for a summer leadership camp, saying, “Quiet rivers run deep.”

So in college, it was traumatic when I was expected to be the complete opposite of everything that I am.  The crowded, noisy freshman dining hall overwhelmed me.  I sat by myself in the darkest corners I could find, missing opportunities to make friends.  I thought I would adapt better to orchestra.  In high school, orchestra been a life-saver, allowing me to find other like-minded teenagers.  They were also misfits who loved books and classical music, and they remain some of my best friends to this day.

College orchestra, it turned out, was mainly an opportunity to drink and party, with a little music thrown in on the side.  I eventually dared to set foot in one of the parties for about five minutes, but quickly fled from the horror of bodies squished together in the dark and ear-splitting music.

I started to believe that something was fundamentally wrong with me.  In class, I sat in silence.  The loudest, flashiest students, never afraid to open their mouths, earned praise and support, snapping up opportunities and fellowships at every turn.

Those hellish four years are the reason I’m so glad I picked up Susan Cain’s book Quiet.  Usually I am skeptical of light non-fiction, thin volumes with a self-helpy tone and a little science thrown in.  But the subtitle caught my eye.  The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.  By then I had started to realize that American culture values people with “personality”: being loud, outgoing, and talkative, even if you don’t have much to say.  I remember seeing an episode of America’s Next Top Model where Tyra Banks dismissed a girl because she was quiet.  She did well in her photoshoots and had a lovely face, but she didn’t talk much.  According to Tyra, that meant she “didn’t have a personality.”  That really bothered me.  Being quiet was her personality.

When I finally picked up a copy of Quiet, I recognized myself instantly.  Though I had started to suspect it, I never labeled myself as an introvert before.  Rather than finding that word limiting, it helped me to embrace my quiet side.  I liked being alone, and that was okay.  The thing I most loved about Quiet was how Susan Cain interprets introversion not as a liability, but as an asset.  She listed numerous scientists, musicians, and writers who achieved what they did not despite their introversion, but because of it.  Introverts are tuned in to their inner life.  They are observant–a key attribute for scientists and writers.  Because they don’t need to socialize constantly, they are able to focus on their work for long stretches of time.

I am so grateful to Susan Cain for writing a book about the positive aspects of introversion.  Now, when I go to a concert alone, or spend a lot of time writing, I don’t think of it as weird, but as a central aspect of my personality.  I am better able to enjoy the rich inner life that comes with being an introvert–the intense engagement with books, music, and ideas; the enjoyment of silence; the close relationships with just a few friends. In this noisy world, which has only gotten more chatty with the rise of the Internet, Susan Cain’s work is a much-needed message.

Interesting Links

In the New Yorker: A piece on Beethoven’s influence; a somewhat rambling review of recent biographies on the composer

This is what the real war on women looks like

On finding community when a writer relocates

When books were bad for you

An argument for conservation burial

By Janet Malcolm: A fascinating review of the Gossip Girl book series, calling them “a transgressive fairy tale.”  I came across this essay via Alice Gregory, a writer whose own non-fiction is also pretty interesting.

Recommended reading: Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman, on the difficulties of writing biographies of Sylvia Plath and  the controversies involved.

The Hand Experiment

Reblogged from the excellent Dial M for Musicology

Dial M for Musicology


So I’ve promised to talk about what matters to me in the study of the arts. My fundamental idea here is a simple one: what we experience is always more than we can put into words.

Place a hand on the table in front of you. (Go on, do it.) Feel the coolness or warmth of it, the texture, the feeling of heat transfer as your hand becomes cooler and the table surface becomes warmer. Do you feel the sensations of all five fingers? The ball of your thumb? The palm? Notice how your hand and arm feel in connection to the rest of your body. Widen your focus to all you hear, smell, and see. Do this for a minute or so, not thinking about what you’re doing but just focusing on what it feels like to be you for a while. Stop reading this and pay attention to…

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The Paris Review interviews an obituary writer for the New York Times

The Millions: Worst book review ever

New York Review of Books: Books we talk about

Harvard University Center for International Affairs: Why the United States Should Spread Democracy

The main takeaways:

  1. “Democracies tend to enjoy greater prosperity over long periods of time. As democracy spreads, more individuals are likely to enjoy greater economic benefits … ‘[A] close correlation with prosperity’ is one of the ‘overwhelming advantages’ of democracy… It is no accident that the countries that have reached the highest level of economic performance across generations are all stable democracies.”
  2. “The economist Amartya Sen concludes that ‘one of the remarkable facts in the terrible history of famine is that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.’ …  Most of the countries that have experienced severe famines in recent decades have been among the world’s least democratic: the Soviet Union (Ukraine in the early 1930s), China, Ethiopia, Somalia, Cambodia and Sudan. Throughout history, famines have occurred in many different types of countries, but never in a democracy.”
  3. “The citizens of liberal democracies are less likely to suffer violent death in civil unrest or at the hands of their governments… Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of genocides and mass murders of civilians in the twentieth century. The states that have killed millions of their citizens all have been authoritarian or totalitarian: the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Nazi Germany, Nationalist China, Imperial Japan, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Democracies have virtually never massacred their own citizens on a large scale.”