Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Challenges of Writing Memoir and Life: Are Forced Stories Good Stories?

I recently read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, a sort of meta-memoir about storytelling in our lives. The author goes through a period of self-reflection after writing the New York Times bestselling memoir Blue Like Jazz and then meeting two Hollywood types who want to turn his story into a movie. Except that his life is too boring to be a movie, so they have to doctor up the plot.

Miller spends some time reflecting on what it means to have a boring life, and concludes that our lives are better lived when we engage in active stories, complete with conflict and pain and growth. To give Miller credit, he embraces his thesis wholeheartedly and goes from being a couch potato to hiking the Inca trail, dating a girl he likes, biking across the country, and starting a nonprofit mentoring program. I bet his Facebook friends are super jealous.

His experiences got me thinking about stories though. I agree with the overall idea that good stories are a better sign of life-well-lived than a TV screen. But, I don’t think all life experiences, even the seemingly adventurous ones, naturally organize themselves into stories of self-development. Sometimes, things are just plain fun. Or just plain unfair. Or just plain boring.

I went on an educational trip once that was just begging to be a story. We were even given journals to record our daily thoughts and answered reflection questions. Because of all the build-up, I felt like the trip was some great life lesson waiting to unfold, and I tried to wring out meaning every day in my journal entries. In the end, some interesting things happened, but assigning an overarching lesson to the whole thing was forced. It was a trip without a plot. It was fun at times and bad at other times, but it was mostly a vacation.

Writing memoirs must be difficult. I imagine that, once an author writes a fantastic memoir and sells oodles of books, they’re compelled to bring out the sequel. But, as I mentioned at the end of my post on Elizabeth Gilbert, how many truly life-changing and memoir-worthy experiences can one person really have?

Based on my experience reading memoirs, I think some of the better “sequels” are comprised of stuff that already happened before the original, bestselling memoir was written. That way, the author didn’t feel pressure the pressure to ohmygod do something interesting/adventurous/profound and crank out a new book by deadline.

I wonder if authors of memoir actually do feel pressured to seek more stories in their lives, and I wonder how that affects the quality of the stories. Sometimes, I think intentionally plunging into a story like Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, can work. At other times, a vacation is just a vacation. Everyone needs one.

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Book Review: Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

I picked up Buyology thinking it would offer more mind-bending, anecdotal nonfiction in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell. But, although Lindstrom serves up plenty of anecdotes, but he’s no Gladwell in terms of a satisfying read.

The basic premise of Buylogy is intriguing, and highly relevant to the future of marketing. Lindstrom, the self-branded “futurist,” hypothesizes that fMRI technology can reveal our true consumer preferences. Focus groups and qualitative research just don’t cut it, because, as he says in the book, we don’t fully realize what truly drives us. No one will say “I bought that Luis Vuitton bag because it appealed to my sense of vanity, and I want my friends to know I can afford a $500 purse.”

So, after scanning the brains of volunteers, Lindstrom outlined some startling conclusions. Apparently graphic warnings about cigarettes backfire and actually increase smokers’ cravings. Smokers claim they’re deterred from lighting up, but their brains reveal otherwise. Lindstrom also discovers that strong brands activate the same centers in the brain as religious devotion. And, mirror neurons allow us to experience the same reaction as whomever we’re watching. So, if we watch someone hit a home run, our brains mirror the activity in the home run hitter’s brain.

But, if you read the above paragraph, you don’t need to read the whole book. Those few nuggets of interesting are couched beneath Lindstrom’s almost too-chatty style and lack of true insight beyond reporting how cool he is, how cool his idea is, and how cool things like iPods are. The book feels shallow.

A subject like neuromarketing and brain scanning comes riddled with inherent ethical questions, or so I expected. But in the beginning of Buyology, Lindstrom glibly announces that he doesn’t have ethical concerns about the studies, and, at the end of the book, he offers little analysis of the value of this research to society or its potential misuses. On the last page, he spends all of three paragraphs explaining that living with an onslaught of advertising is inevitable, because unplugging would be dreadfully boring. He claims that reading Buyology will allow you to avoid being duped by commercials and marketing, etc. Eh. I don’t believe him. His grand conclusion seems kind of tacked on. I would have preferred a thoughtful analysis of the societal implications of brain scanning and marketing.

Last but not least, I hesitate to pick on an author’s actual personality, but I think Lindstrom’s ego can take it. As a reader, I think of nonfiction narrators as characters, similar to fictional ones. Malcolm Gladwell is a likeable nonfiction narrator/character. I would gladly have him over for dinner.

Lindstrom, though, blasts his ego at the reader and becomes unlikeable and irritating in the process. A quick example: “Why did I bother to write a book about neuromarketing? After all, I run several businesses, I constantly fly all over the globe advising top executives–heck, I’m only home sixty days out of the year.” Maybe it’s because I just watched Up in the Air, but I immediately thought of George Clooney’s globetrotting character bragging about frequent flier miles and days on the road.

Unfortunately, the nonfictional Lindstrom doesn’t have a character arc of heart-touching change like Clooney. He’s the same irritating author in the beginning as the end. As the Prologue (not written by him) says, “Like a Pre-Raphaelite painting there is a glow that emanates from Martin as if he was destined to be on stage.”

Check out his website if you have any doubt about that. Be warned, it contains music that you can’t turn off, a talking Lindstrom video that starts automatically, flashy little price tag things, and a bar of scrolling text.

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Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best nonfiction writers out there. I tend to get pretty picky about the quality of writing in nonfiction books (if I wanted to read a boring textbook full of stilted sentences I’d go back to school), but Gladwell’s words go down smooth. Seamless transitions, compelling anecdotes, unconventional yet logical thinking. I like the guy. I’d like to invite him over to dinner and just hear him talk for two hours.

What the Dog Saw is a compilation book, the best of Gladwell’s essays cherrypicked from the pages of the New Yorker. There’s no common theme, but his work is arranged under three broad categories.

Although all the sections are worth reading, the Personality, Character, and Intelligence section held my attention more than the others. The story on late-blooming versus early-blooming geniuses opened my mind to subsets of talent, and I learned plenty about the artist Cezanne along the way.

Among my favorite individual pieces, Gladwell writes about why mustard commands so much shelf space for its gourmet iterations, while innovation in the field of ketchup seems doomed. I also enjoyed his pieces about hair dye ads in the postwar era, the birth control pill, and the talent-centered culture that contributed to Enron’s demise.

Actually, I eagerly consumed too many pieces to name them all. It’s simpler to name the few I didn’t like. Oddly enough, I could have done without the title story, What the Dog Saw, about the dog whisperer Cesar Millan. The story about the Challenger disaster didn’t hold my attention either. Still, the majority of the book is fascinating and well-worth buying/checking out from your local library/filching from a friend.

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The Trade-Off and E-Books

The Trade-Off by Kevin Maney talks about the convenience of a product versus its fidelity, aka its special aura or experience.  E-books are a new product, and currently there’s no break-out product for history to declare the winner.  The Kindle has made some headway, and the iPad has the potential to revolutionize, but we’re not there quite ready to name the Betamax.

Maney puts in plain terms what many consumers have already concluded.  E-books just aren’t as treasured right now as real books.  Real books, he argues, have fidelity.  Real books can be displayed on a shelf to impress your friends, noted with your name, and kept forever.  That fidelity can’t be replicated by an e-book, which offers a more transient experience.  Your e-book exists in the ether, never truly yours to own in the way as a nice hardcover.

An e-book is potentially more convenient though.  You press a button and poof!  Instant book.  No trip to the store or agonizing wait for the UPS man.  No heavy backpack to lug around.  But, even though it all sounds good in theory, right now e-books just aren’t that convenient.  You have to buy an expensive device, buy expensive books, and deal with some less than ideal design issues.

So, right now, e-books aren’t particularly convenient, and they’re not offering a high fidelity experience either (must restrain from John Cusak joke).  Maney says this puts them in the “fidelity belly,” that no-mans land between the two extremes, and this isn’t a good place for a product seeking success.  E-books could break out of this trench, though, by becoming super convenient.  I think Maney is on to something here.

Amazon or Apple or another e-book player could pour money into development and unveil a ridiculously convenient e-reader.  This e-reader would be cheaper, have a more intuitive design, allow users to truly own books without pesky DRM, and more closely simulate the experience of reading a real book.  When that mythical e-reader debuts, the real revolution in written media will begin.  Until then, I’m sticking with Amazon supersaver shipping, Barnes and Noble, and my trusty public library.

I do think it’s only a matter of time before this ideal e-reader is created.  The promise of technology is there, and we’ve seen super convenience revolutionize other fields like music and television.  When the platform is right, e-books will fly off the shelves, and physical books might no longer be there…

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Book Review: Trade-Off by Kevin Maney

Trade-Off is written in a light, conversational style that makes the book fly by before you blink.  Fans of Malcolm Gladwell books and Freakonomics will enjoy the tone and content of the book, as Maney explains his concept of a “trade-off” by offering vivid anecdotes and profiles of people and products.

The “trade-off” explored is the interplay between fidelity and convenience.  Fidelity, defined in the book, is a product’s total experience.  Maney uses the example of attending a U2 concert.  Although it’s incredibly inconvenient to book concert tickets, drive to a defined place, and stand in line, you simply can’t replicate the experience of being in the physical presence of the band and joining the crowd dancing around you.

On the other hand, a U2 CD is a highly convenient product with its own niche in the market.  A CD has high sound quality and can be enjoyed at any time, but it’s an easily replicated and not particularly unique experience, and thus not a threat to concert ticket sales.

Products get in trouble when they occupy the “fidelity belly,” the no man’s land between catering to the high fidelity niche and the high convenience track.  After establishing these key vocab words, Maney dives into explanations of just about everything.  He explores reasons behind the NHLs lackluster television numbers and offers a solution.   He tackles Ozzfest, the iPhone, Netflix, flash-frozen fish, Second Life, MTV, and ATMs.  And that’s only a sampling.

I was especially interested in the segment devoted to e-books.  It’s a meaty topic though, so I’ll offer my thoughts in the next post.

If you like this type of book, then I highly recommend “The Trade-Off.”  I blazed through it, and I have a hunch you’ll find it interesting too.

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