Sunday, August 5, 2007

Non-Fiction Double Shot (Blink, Waiting for Daisy)

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Blink argues that the split-second judgements that people make are usually trustworthy. Gladwell is famous for The Tipping Point, which I haven't read, and in this follow-up he offers what I think of as pop non-fic. It's definitely non-fiction, and it has a thesis, but it would be laughed out of academic circles. I enjoyed parts of it, but Blink suffers from the same weakness I found in The Wisdom of Crowds and, albeit less obvious, Freakonomics. Namely, the author seems to think that if he makes a broad claim, and then gives me lots of anecdotal evidence, I'll believe him. While this method leads to interesting stories, it isn't calculated to make me agree. In fact, half of the time, it felt as if the anecdotes contradicted his thesis. For example, he talks about a psychological study where a professor recorded married couples having minor disagreements. Then, the professor (and his poor grad slaves, lol) deviced a way of ranking the emotions being expressed by each spouse and assigning them a number value. Finally, this value turned out to be a remarkable predictor of if the couple remained married. As Gladwell tells the story, he makes it clear that when a lay person watches a couple on the screen, s/he may think that the couple is in a great position, while the trained grad student would see a future divorce. This seems to undermine the idea that immediate judgements are correct, since it's only with minute analysis that the truth becomes clear. I wish I could discuss his arguments more, but unfortunately I had to return the book to the library. Suffice it to say, there were some interesting ideas, but nothing compelling.

Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein

This book was completely different species of non-fiction: the memoir. In this case, Orenstein is a feminist scholar who, in her mird-thirties, realises she wants to be a mother. This realisation engenders a whole host of crises: identity, physical, emotional, sexual. The book chronicles Orenstein's self-described trip into the insanity of infertility, and she explains how she found herself doing ridiculous things in order to have a child. I don't usually like memoirs, but this one is an exception. Orenstein mixes enough random facts (did you know that riding a bike kills sperm?) and hilarious moments into her recollections to keep things interesting. She also knows when it's time to wrap something up; I never found myself getting bored. Additionally, she's good at conveying emotions; I constantly empthathised with her, and a section where she's discussing Japanese shrines to aborted and miscarried fetuses really touched me. In short, this is everything I could ask of a memoir: witty, frank, self-aware, short, and with a happy ending!

Favourite Passages (From Waiting for Daisy)

"I guess I think of life as kind of like an amusement park," he said. "If you're going to go, you should ride every ride at least once. And having kids is like the big, scary roller coaster. You can have a good time without riding it, but you would've missed a significant part of the experience." (8)

As it was, at a tenuous five weeks gestation I'd already calculated my due date on a Web site, ogled pictures of "my baby's" development, and joined an Expecting Club on iVillage for November Mommies-to-Be. If the second IVF had taken, I would've taped that photograph of fertilized cells to the fridge. All of this encourages a mother-to-be to see the fetus as a person, at least in the psychological sense, at an even earlier stage. You tell friends. Names are bandied about. The baby feels real. Yet, if the pregnancy goes amiss, that personhood is abruptly revoked and you're supposed to act like nothing ever happened. (132)

Another thing I'd never noticed: there is no word in English for a miscarried or aborted fetus. How better to bury a topic than to make it literally unspeakable? In Japanese it is
mizuko, which is usually translated as "water child." Historically, Japanese Buddhists believed that existence flowed into being slowly, like liquid. Children solidifed only gradually over time and weren't considered to be fully in the human realm until they reached the age of seven. Similarly, leaving this world-returning to primordial waters-was a process beginning at sixty with a celebration of a symbolic second birth. A mizuko lay somewhere along the continuum, in that liminal space between life and death but belonging to neither. (135)

I did know that a dog wasn't a child, though that, apprently, is not a commonly shared observation in Berkeley. In a town of people who have a tendency to be a mite zealous, the dog people are extreme. They successfully lobbied for an ordinance forbidding citizens to
own pets-we can't even call them pets. We must refer to ourselves as the "guardians" of our "animal companions." (156)

5 comments:

J.S. Peyton said...

I have Freakanomics on my shelf still waiting to be read. I'm sure I'll read it one of these but at least now I know that I probably won't be moving on to Blink when I finish it. Thanks for the review. :)

MyUtopia said...

Thanks for the reviews. I got blink this year on sale at a Borders Outlet store.

Eva said...

J.S. Peyton, I enjoyed Freakonomics more than Blink-the argument was much more cohesive in the former.

MyUtopia, glad you got it on sale. ;) It was a fun, short read, if you don't expect anything more than interesting stories!

Christopher said...

Your thoughts on Freakonomics is spot on. While it is enjoyable, it is still just throwing economic data at you to support a point, which the skeptical mind might wonder if you can find data to support any position.

Eva said...

Christopher, The Economist (the magazine) did a pretty thorough debunking of the book. I can't really remember what the problems were anymore. Either way, it was still fun to go along with it!