Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Code and Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.
Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor by Clinton Romesha, 5/5
This harrowing story gave me a renewed sense of respect and empathy for all U.S. service members who have seen combat. I have several family members in the military, including a couple who have been deployed to the Middle East, but I’ve never asked for any war stories and they’ve never told me any. It’s not that I’m uninterested, it just feels rude (or worse, tacky) to pry. After all, I wouldn’t ask a police officer how many people they’ve shot or a newly single person why they got divorced. Because of this, it felt like a rare privilege to read such a raw account of danger, bravery and sacrifice. I’m thankful the author was willing to relive such a personally traumatic experience and honor the dead’s memory with a permanent, written record.
Why I read it: my brother, Ian, recommended it to me.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, 5/5
This ubiquitous book is well-deserving of its reputation as the bible of pregnancy. It contains a ton of helpful information but what makes it truly outstanding, in my opinion, is the comforting and positive tone with which the info is conveyed. Reading it feels more like having a conversation with your mom than referencing a textbook or encyclopedia. Pregnancy can be a scary experience and it’s such a relief to read that whatever bizarre symptom you are dealing with is perfectly normal. I do wish that the book ended on a happier note instead of a chapter on complications and pregnancy loss, though.
I also really like the What to Expect website’s week-to-week feature and forums.
Why I read it: I am pregnant and remember seeing this book on my parents’ shelf as a kid. I was lucky that a friend passed along this copy to me.
Pose! 1,000 Poses for Photographers and Models by Mehmet Eygi, 2/5
I like the basic layout of this book, which features one pose per page, each accompanied by a short summary, tips and three variations. Most of the poses seem to exist on a scale of somewhat to extremely cliched but presumably that is practically the point of a reference book like this. It is also understandable that many of the photos would feel lifeless and contrived, since they necessarily feature the same models and backdrops over and over again. Less forgivable are the extremely repetitive “tips” which add little additional value to the images, and the inclusion of many mediocre and a few absolutely cringe-worthy pose variations that made me question the author’s taste and expertise altogether.
My confidence in the author was further eroded by his brief “key lessons,” which did not display a nuanced or insightful perspective, but repetitively recommended a contrived and inorganic approach to photography at odds with common sense, psychology and my observation of other methods. What kind of photographer broadly advises others to methodically exhaust the possibilities of every single pose and variation before relentlessly moving on to the next? I was curious, so I visited Mehmet Eygi’s website (which was mentioned in two places in this book) and Facebook page. Surprisingly, neither features any of his photography or even mentions his name: they represent his comp card printing/design business. His Instagram page, where he identifies only as “Entrepreneur & Author,” is certainly no convincing testament to his photographic expertise either, displaying only a few generic pictures. In fact, I could find no other website, portfolio, resume or examples of his work not associated with this particular book, which seems very strange. Though Pose! does technically fulfill the promise of its title, I feel that it attempted to accomplish more and failed.
Why I read it: I’m trying to improve my photography and ordered every book on posing my library had.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, 4/5
Disjointed, unscholarly, easily debatable and offering no real solutions, this book nevertheless makes a tiny but very specific contribution towards understanding the complexities of U.S. mental health issues. Junger postulates that mental health declines as societies lose their tribal features, becoming more complex, prosperous, elitist and individualistic. Further, he attempts to prove that people’s resilience actually increases in troubled times, when society temporarily becomes more communal and egalitarian. His final claim is that long-term PTSD in soldiers is not so much caused by wartime trauma, but the difficulty of transitioning between these two cultures.
Junger makes some controversial statements and is up-front about his book’s origin (a Vanity Fair article) and purpose (nonacademic). Because of this, I feel Tribe transcends its pop-psychology characteristics and can be forgiven for feeling like a very preliminary exploration of a complex topic.
Why I read it: When the title was recommended separately to me by two of my brothers, I knew it was worth checking out.
I’ve always suspected that I belong to one of the thin ends on the bell curve of normality, so perhaps I should not have been so surprised that reading this book was like reading placards at the zoo about weird animal mating rituals. In this case, the strange animal is a human being who is definitely sure that being married is the key to their happiness and isn’t too hung up on the minor details, like exactly who to marry or why. After all, if you’re determined to find a spouse, Welch argues that it’s just a simple case of creating a list of more or less arbitrary criteria that can be used to sort through participants in a tireless grind of date-interviews that goes on until you find someone who is either a) if you are a woman, a man who pays for everything and is infatuated with you thanks to your hard-to-get attitude or b) if you are a man, a woman who can be convinced to love you and is as young and beautiful as your status and economic resources merit.
As a guide to getting what you already know you want in a relationship, this book is both practical and disturbingly plausible. But for people who not only don’t know what they want, but doubt even the possibility of being able to predict what will actually make them happy, this book is worse than useless–it’s nauseating.
Why I read it: it was a gift from a family member.