Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading, not birding

Due to the fact that I've come down with a walloping head cold, instead of birding, I spent the weekend laying on the couch honking into a wad of tissues and reading. And not even books about birds, either. Just random stuff that caught my interest lately.

On Saturday I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown: 2012), which caught my eye because I do consider myself to be one of the most introverted people I know, and I often feel like I don't quite fit in the world. I do believe that we humans come in all different packages, and it's inevitable that any given social climate will favor certain types over others.

Even after reading the book, I'm still a little fuzzy on the exact definition of an introvert. As one myself, I have always been very specific that the personality type is not synonymous with other categories such as shy, quiet, reflective or highly sensitive. To me, "introverted" means that, nine times out of ten, if given my druthers, I prefer to be alone. It's not that I don't like (most) other people. But really, being around others tires me out. Being alone refreshes me, and if I'm not alone, I prefer to just hang with family members or a couple of close friends. The life of the party, I am not.

But: I am most decidedly not shy. Actually, I'm pretty bold. If you dared me to walk up to a complete stranger and, say, do a bawk-bawk chicken imitation, or ask them something bizarre and personal, well...if you were going to pay me enough, I'd do it. My jobs of the past decade or so, including teaching and medical billing, involve a lot of human contact, including some things that others might fight awkward, such as explaining to a student why they're failing or making collections calls. Not a problem for me, since I really do not give a rat's ass what other people think of me. Therefore, it goes without saying that items Cain addresses as being challenging for introverts, such as public speaking, don't faze me a bit.

The other pseudo-synonyms I listed are a bit trickier. I am sometimes quiet, sometimes gregarious. Reflective? OK, I probably am...maybe even a bit too much. I do tend to stew in my own juices a lot, and over-think just about everything. But maybe that's just because I'm over-educated; all those classes with names like "structuralism and semiotics," and nothing to use them for!

The last item, highly sensitive, Cain spends a lot of time on, and it was one of the more interesting points for me. Basically, a highly sensitive person is not necessarily what you could dismiss as being "emo," but someone who reacts strongly to outside stimuli, such as noisy environments. Apparently certain researchers have been able to test infants with reactivity studies, and accurately predict whether they would be outgoing or introverted as adults.

Even that category felt a bit artificial to me. In some ways, I will admit I am quite "sensitive," for example, crowded shopping malls or busy traffic can make me feel like I'm unraveling at the seams. But Cain predicts that such individuals, presumably introverts, will therefore shy from new experiences, and as for myself, I am a self-proclaimed experience junkie. I love to travel and try new things. I hate staying put. I am never happier than when on a bus or in a crowded marketplace in some foreign country, where I may or may not speak the language...unless I'm also seeing new birds!

I am sorry to use myself as an example, but the point remains, if Quiet is a book about introverts, and I only fit one of many definitions (i.e., that I prefer solitude or the company of just one or two others), then where does that leave us? Well, I suspect that leaves us with some fuzzy generalizations that may or may not be useful to any particular reader.

The book discusses the many strengths and positive qualities of introverts, and the varying ways in which our society puts quiet types at a disadvantage: group work and "teams" from grade school all the way to the workforce; open office plans; examples from Harvard Business School and a certain style of evangelicalism that almost insist their adherents be hail-fellow-well-met types, and the self-help movement (for example, she attends a pricey seminar by self-help guru Tony Robbins). The take home message is that there is a place for both quiet and out-spoken people in our world. OK, I agree with that. And I agree that our society tends to listen more to the superficial, the loud-mouth, the person who can "sell themselves"...even though beneath the surface, those who brag the most often have the least to show for it.

Overall, I think that this book might appeal most to those who truly are shy or to wallflowers who wish they could blossom. There's a lot of support for those types, and some generic self-help style advice for how they can make the best of it or communicate with different personalities. Personally, I found the book a bit superficial, although a fast read; I recommend doing as I did, and checking it out from the library first.

For a completely different change of pace, Sunday I read Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment by Suzanne Morrison (Three Rivers Press: 2011). This memoir details the two months that the author spent on a yoga retreat in Bali. When I picked it up (also at the library), I figured: why not? I'm cynical, I like yoga, and I'd love to go to Bali.

In a word, the book is hilarious. I very rarely laugh out loud when I'm reading, but this book provided multiple guffaws. Morrison turns her cynical and yet hopeful eye upon her past, revealing her younger self, hoping for enlightenment, and yet confronted with an almost cult-like environment, one of whose tenants involves the allegedly healthful benefits of drinking one's own urine. (Although as her roommate tells her, be sure to get it from the "mid-stream" of the morning's first flow. The first part is too strong and the last part is a bit...crunchy.)

In the process, she becomes progressively disillusioned with her yoga teacher, has a genuinely transcendent moment, worries about her love life, and rebels by drinking milkshakes. (The description of said milkshakes, coconut vanilla flavored, induced a craving in me that I am still plotting how best to satisfy. Would French vanilla ice cream suffice, or should I also add a bit of vanilla? I say vanilla. And for the I need to buy an actual coconut, or would canned coconut milk do? Hmmmm...must scour the Internet for advice!)

As with Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Bali is merely the backdrop, the author's personal journey being the true "setting," but the glimpses I got of the Balinese culture were tantalizing. The tiny swimming pool on the grounds that was reserved for God...the exorcism of the possessed blender (don't ask, just read the book...that's all I can say)...the brief conversation with the Balinese man about what third world countries have and the people of the developed world are looking for, all of this made me think, "Give me more!"

But having lived abroad myself (in Japan and Morocco), I know how challenging it is to be the outsider looking in. Kudos to Morrison that she sticks to her own observations, as limited as they may be, instead of taking an authority she did not have upon herself. Her experience was 95% restricted to the yoga retreat, and she does have some light to shed on that. I am glad I did not join her, and equally glad she penned her experiences for me to share vicariously.

I really enjoyed this book, and I don't think one has to practice yoga to relate to it (although that may help). Again, if you're not certain if you'd like it or not, give the library a try...although this is one I may want to re-read some day.

And now, I am feeling better, so hopefully more birding adventures soon! But it was nice to revisit the lazy days of just hanging about in one's PJs with a book.

Have you read either of these books? If so, what did you think of them?


  1. I haven't read this one, but I've read plenty of books about being an introvert. I'm always intrigued and usually disappointed. They all seem to point to the key to happiness being becoming more extroverted. No thanks! I like who I am! I read one introvert book where I was sure the author must have been an extrovert who really wanted to change her introverted husband. Puke. Sorry extroverts, but I think YOU are weird for needing a bathroom buddy or having your phone glued to your hand at all times. And when you double the length of every meeting just to hear the sound of your own voice? I find you to be annoying, not intelligent. Rant over...

  2. I MUST read "Yoga Bitch", as I, too, need someone to give certain of my kitchen appliances a good exorcism! And, I've always wanted to go to Bali, a wish that has only grown more fervent as I consider the birds I might see there! And, furthermore, I love books that make me laugh out loud. As for the book about introverts, thanks to my job, I'm no longer good thing WalMart has done for me. Other than that, I'll just embrace Old Bathood; introspection is for those who are still curious about why they are as they are. Mom PS Glad your cold is better!