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Friday, March 28, 2014

Book Review Friday: Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"

By Carol Baicker-McKee

This one's for the grown-ups. (But don't worry, I'll add some picture book suggestions at the end.)

If you haven't already discovered Susan Cain's thoroughly researched (and influential) 2012 nonfiction book about introverts - individuals who prefer lower levels of stimulation - well, get thee to a library or bookstore! (The link above takes you to Cain's website where you can order copies - signed, even - of the book.) I for one regret waiting this long to read it myself.

What It's About
In Quiet, Cain explores the nature of introversion (which is not synonymous with shyness or fear of public speaking and also differs from autism) and extroversion. She sees this dimension of personality, which she identifies as "the North and South of Temperament," as being as fundamental to an individual's life as gender, affecting people's relationships, work, and sense of satisfaction, as well as influencing how easily they can make a mark on the world.

It took Cain seven years to research and write this book, which is easy to imagine even from the depth and breadth of her research in Part I on the history of how extroversion became the cultural  ideal in the U.S and much of the West and what the consequences, good and bad, have been for our society as a result. Her thorough and intriguing style continues throughout as she looks at introversion from many perspectives. Part Two examines the biology of introversion-extroversion; Part Three looks at Asian culture and its acceptance of introverts (many reviewers found this section most troubling); and finally, Part Four is a practical guide for living with your own temperament and interacting with those who differ. Throughout, Cain weaves clear explanations of scholarly research from a wide range of fields, interesting biographical anecdotes of historical and contemporary figures, personal revelations, and analyses of political, economic and news events. Although the book has had its share of negative reviews, I found it to be as readable and ground-breakingly analytical as anything by Malcolm Gladwell (author of influential bestsellers like The Tipping Point, Outliers, and David and Goliath), which is high praise from me.

If you'd like to learn more before committing to reading it, you can check out information on the book on Cain's website, watch her TED talk on introversion, read the Wikipedia entry about the book and its influence, or check out a wealth of reader reviews (and other resources) on Amazon here and Goodreads here.

Why Members of the Book Community Might Like to Read This Book
Sara Reading. Paper cut by Carol Baicker-McKee
For Self-Help/Validation
Based on her research, Cain estimates that between one-third and one-half of the world's population is introverted. Based on my personal experience, I'll estimate that the proportion of introverts among writers, illustrators, avid readers, librarians, and editors and many others in the publishing field is at least two-thirds. And that makes sense: as Cain discovered, creative work typically demands long periods of solitary, inner work - just the conditions under which introverts thrive. (Want a quick evaluation of where you fall on the introversion-extroversion spectrum? You can take Cain's informal quiz here). The information in Quiet will help us introverts understand our needs and tendencies better and help us cope better with extroverts and situations requiring a more extroverted style (think the marketing demands that are now integral to any book-related career). Perhaps even more importantly, Cain's book offers reassurance that not only are introverts okay, their style is essential for our society.

For Character Research
Books like Quiet are great for research in developing characters, particularly if those characters are different from you. Quiet not only offers a wealth of detail about how introverts think, behave and develop - it also provides behind-the-scenes portraits of extroverts, making it easier to create a convincing one (should they seem utterly foreign to you).

By  the way, I have my doctorate in clinical psychology, so I've long been a fan of books about human development and psychopathology -- if you haven't been, you might want to consider adding them to the stack by your bed as background character research. (Let me know if you'd be interested in a future post on more of my favorite psych-for-writers books.)

For the Book's Influence on Publishing?
I don't have any objective information that the book is changing children's publishing, but I do know that it has been hailed as influential in areas as diverse as college admissions and the design of office space and furniture - and over the last couple of years, I've been seeing a growing stream of picture books on the market that could only be described as, well, quiet. And this after years in which nearly every picture book writer I know accumulated stacks of rejections for manuscripts that editors liked but deemed "too quiet."

I know, the timing isn't really quite right, given how long it takes a picture book to go from acceptance to publication (let alone conception), but still..

Here are a couple of my favorite "quiet" picture books from recent years.

The title says it all (though in fairness, there's also a companion Noisy book). I especially love the softness and humor of Renata Liwska's illustrations for Deborah Underwood's spare but charming text. You can visit the illustrator's Quiet Blog for glimpses of more quiet works-in-progress and a peek at her life.

Elly Mackay is one of my new favorite illustrators, and only partly because she favors three-dimensional media like I do. All of her work is breathtaking as well as original - and quiet. She uses a unique technique she calls "paper theater" and which incorporates layered sets, watercolor cutouts, and theater-style lighting to create luminous award-winning pictures. You can visit her website and blog, theaterclouds, as well as buy prints of her work on Etsy.

So What Do You Think?
Have you read Quiet? What did you think?
Do you agree or disagree that introspection is undervalued? Is it a useful trait in today's society?
How does your own introversion/extroversion influence your work? Your reading choices?


  1. I absolutely LOVED this book! I found myself saying "Yes!" constantly while reading it. I think introverts are very much undervalued in society. We're told early on to 'put yourself out there' and 'don't be so quiet. After reading this book, I'm so conscious while I substitute teach of those kids who seem to share these traits. Even though I realized long ago that there was nothing 'wrong' with me, this book was especially validating. I'm drawn to books that are more character-centered rather than the fast-paced, plot-driven stories, probably for this reason.

    1. So glad you loved it too, Dawn. Like you, I found myself agreeing with point after point. Two of my kids are strong introverts, and now I cringe at how I often pushed them to be more outgoing (and less like I was as a kid), when I should have just been supporting who they are! And interesting point about how our introversion affects our reading choices too.

  2. Love your review, Carol. I too enjoyed this book and found it enlightening to help me understand myself and the people around me. And of course, I love your plug for quiet picture books--which are too few and far between in my opinion. :)

  3. This book is clear, readable, and has discussable examples, and I am looking forward to sharing this book with all my fellow introverts (and the extroverts who love them) and their coworkers, and especially parents of introvert/shy/sensitive kids.
    Recommended Angela Addiego - Bristol Bay Fishing Lodge