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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Quiet’

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QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN'T STOP TALKING
By Susan Cain
Crown, $26, 352 pages

"The smarter you are, the less noise you make in every facet of life." This sentence, uttered by Adam Carolla, a man who talks into a microphone for a living, should be enshrined on statues and added to the Book of Proverbs. It is a rebuke to the cultural consensus, which prizes go-getters and noisemakers who go to hellish places and say nothing worth hearing (e.g., "Jersey Shore").

The nonconformists are introverts - "people who find other people tiring," as essayist Jonathan Rauch defined them. They prefer themselves to others (often justifiably) and silence to karaoke (always justifiably). They are the subject of Susan Cain's book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking."

Ms. Cain, an introvert herself, has done her research, scholarly as well as anecdotal, and it shows, sometimes too much. She's fond of the words "studies show" - as in, "Studies show that the fear of public humiliation is a potent force" (a point that is grasped easily without the aid of statistical evidence).

Studies are important, but they're not always necessary. It is not surprising, for instance, that "studies do show that introverts are significantly more likely than extroverts to fear public speaking." Given that extroverts enjoy talking and large groups of people and introverts do not, it makes sense that extroverts would enjoy talking to large groups of people more than introverts would.

Curiously, introverts are better telemarketers. "The extroverts would make these wonderful calls," says a professor who studied the issue, "but then a shiny object of some kind would cross their paths, and they'd lose focus." It's bizarre that shiny objects could be so mesmerizing as to impair the speech of talkative people, unless the people in question are women in jewelry stores.

In addition to studies, "Quiet" has lots of stories. Some are inadvertently entertaining (such as the one about Edgar, who "stopped bringing index cards to dinner parties"). But after a while, stories about random strangers become tiring, especially when they make a point that doesn't require a story. ("And in the next chapter we'll meet a superstar salesman who broke his company's sales records year after year by insisting on staying true to his introverted self." Point: Stay true to your introverted self.)

Psychobabble infests many pages, producing a reader-unfriendly effect. For example: "When she arrives at a party, Sally often wishes she could hide behind the nearest couch - until her prefrontal cortex takes over and she remembers what a good conversationalist she is. Even so, her amygdala, with its lifetime of stored associations between strangers and anxiety, sometimes prevails."

As quiet as I was when I read this, I was not smart enough to know what it meant.

At times, "Quiet" reads like a self-help book ("stay true to your own nature"; "love is essential"; "cherish your nearest and dearest"; "spend your free time the way you like"; "stay home on New Year's Eve if that's what makes you happy" - in other words, do what you want). There's something starkly anti-introvert about "self-help." It's not really "self-help" if someone helps you help yourself.

Ms. Cain proposes a "rubber band theory" of personality, which is not a theory but a yoga-inspired platitude: "We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much." This necessitates a "Free Trait Agreement," by which introverts and extroverts are to switch roles occasionally. This is not a bad idea. Extroverts, we learn, "have more sex partners than introverts do," they "exercise more," and they "commit more crimes." Apart from the exercising, extroversion sounds pretty fun.

Extroverts fight wars, but introverts combat "quieter threats like viral disease or climate change." Ms. Cain mentions Al Gore, an introvert who leads the fight against moderately higher temperatures. Mr. Gore's message resonates with people, the author says, not for political reasons but because it is "the call of his conscience." (Presumably only liberals have consciences, because they are the only ones who get the message.)

Ms. Cain praises Mr. Gore, Eleanor Roosevelt and Warren Buffett but says nothing about conservative introverts. Not a word about Calvin Coolidge ("Silent Cal"), who deserves at least a page. "The things I don't say," he said, "never get me into trouble." His say-nothing personality informed his do-nothing politics: The less the government does, the less trouble it creates. Perhaps introverts can save the world by not trying to make it better.

"Hell," said Jean-Paul Sartre, "is other people." If you already know what hell is, you don't need to see the flames. This is the problem with "Quiet." If you're already a firm believer in introversion, you don't need to see the evidence in its favor. Proud introverts don't need convincing. Self-doubting introverts and phony extroverts do, and they should read this book - if for no other reason than that reading it will keep them quiet.

Windsor Mann is the editor of "The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism" (Da Capo Press, 2011).

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