Blink, Saturday, and other books for 2005

The first notable book I've finished in 2005 is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (excerpt). Fans of Gladwell will recognize some of the ideas in the book. He covered some of this ground in an article from 2002, "The Naked Face." Blink focuses on rapid cognition, the immediate and almost unconscious reaction you have when you first encounter a person or object. Gladwell is careful to distinguish this type of rapid cognition from intuition because he believes that the judgments we make in these few seconds can often be more worthwhile than those arising from deliberate analysis.

The ideas in the book are not as revolutionary as those in The Tipping Point, and those looking for a prescriptive text will be disappointed, but the book is still engrossing, a quick read. Gladwell's appea is that he combines fascinating ideas from the non-fiction world with a fiction writer's flair for storytelling. A typical Gladwell article or chapter opens with a seemingly straightforward anecdote that eventually unfurls to reveal a surprising, often non-intuitive idea. He never rushes the story or hammers his points home with heavy rhetoric; like a seasoned card player, Gladwell slow plays his most powerful ideas.

Among the fascinating topics covered in Blink:

  • Implicit Association Test - click on the demonstration link and take some of the sample tests. The results might surprise you by revealing unconscious biases, whether they be age or race

  • How psychologist John Gottman can predict with 95% accuracy whether a couple will be married fifteen years later simply by watching an hour of videotape of the couple conversing. Simply watching fifteen minutes, he only drops to 90% accuracy. He's been so successful that he's founded The Gottman Institute, a couples training and counseling center, in Seattle. Curious newlyweds might wish to take the online relationship quiz or purchase his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

  • The risk of being sued for malpractice has very little to do with how many mistakes a doctor makes. What does it correlate to?

  • What simple test did doctors put into place at Cook County Hospital to become one of the leading hospitals for recognizing patients who weren't really having a heart attack? Why did that test improve their accuracy by 70% over the previous method?

One of those times I wish I was in London instead of here in the states: Ian McEwan's new novel Saturday has released in the UK, but not yet in the States. I suppose I could order a copy from the UK, but the dollar is too weak to justify spending that much. An excerpt appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

Other books I'm looking forward to this year:

Jared Diamond's latest was the early buzz leader in 2005, though I'm not ready to take on a 592 page tome about why civilizations collapse. Jonathan Safran Foer follows up his much-acclaimed Everything is Illuminated with a novel releasing in April titled Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Foer's latest deals with 9/11, and McEwan's novel is set on Feb. 15, 2003, the day the British marched against the Iraq War. It will be interesting to see how fiction deals with 9/11 now that more time has passed and more facts have come to light.

Nick Hornby's fourth novel, A Long Way Down, arrives in June. I've waited for years for a Hornby novel to grab me the way High Fidelity did, and though the topic of this one concerns depression, therapy, and suicidal tendencies, the plot sounds calculated to pique one's curiosity. Four people meet atop a tower in north London on New Year's Eve, all intending to jump, but instead they become fast friends. Supposedly the book features an appearance by an angel who looks like Matt Damon.

Of course, the mainstream will snap up the latest Harry Potter (July) and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code sequel (release date unknown), supposedly set in Washington D.C., and even the latest John Irving, Until I Find You. David McCullough's latest historical tome 1776 will undoubtedly dominate the non-fiction charts. It's not a stretch to imagine every one of these being turned into movies.

For my med-school friends, especially Alan and Sharon, A Change of Heart: How the People of Framingham, Massachusetts, Helped Unravel the Mysteries of Cardiovascular Disease seems appropriate. After all, it's only through talking to Alan that I even knew of the Framingham Heart Study. And our current unofficial family book club selection seems to be East of Eden. It's always more fun to read a book when you know you'll have people to discuss it with afterwards. Lastly, while at Sundance, Joannie, Mike, and I had an opportunity to chat with Roger Ebert while waiting in the lobby for the screening of The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Ebert called A Fine Balance the finest novel he'd read in the past decade. Used copies sell for $1.50 on Amazon, and hopefully one is on its way to me in the mail.

My main goal for the year, though, is to focus on finishing one book at a time rather than starting a dozen books and making it halfway through each. I'm not certain that focusing on one book at a time is necessarily a smarter strategy, but it will mean fewer books piled up around my bed. Several times in recent nights I've rolled over and had a hardcover drop on my head or on the ground with a loud thud. So it's for health reasons that I'm focusing my pre-bedtime story-reading.

One other book I just finished was Goodnight Moon. I babysat my nephew Ryan tonight (still the cutest baby ever), and that's the last book he always reads before he goes to sleep at night. At first, I couldn't find it, and Ryan, who just turned two, held off on telling me where it was until after I'd read him several other books. Then, finally, with a sheepish smile, he pointed it out, nestled in the pocket of the rocking chair in which we sat. The book works exactly as advertised. When I finished, I put Ryan in his crib where he sprawled out on his belly, sucking his thumb, as I turned out the lights and left the room.

FOOTNOTE: As always, if you find any reading material of interest listed above and click through on one of my links to purchase the book(s) on Amazon, I receive a modest commission. That is always appreciated, though more so now that I'm living in NYC as a starving artist. Thanks!