There are different types of page turners. On the one hand, there’s The Goldfinch, the latest novel by Donna Tartt, brightly lit with imagery, possessing a smorgasbord of eccentric characters and a plotline that feels like switchbacks on a steep trail. Reading this book feels a lot like surfing, like riding big waves of information but never penetrating the onslaught of new characters, new settings. There’s the intimate existence that the main character, Theo initially shares with his mother, followed by vivid bouts of nostalgia for it, the subterranean, shrouded feel of the antiques workshop where Theo eventually finds refuge, the bright, sparse, and desolate conditions of his father’s Las Vegas house, the padded, snobby wash to his time living with the affluent Barbour family… It’s colorful; it’s rich with variety.
Then there are books that grab and hook you with one singular, powerful theme, like the book Quiet, written by Susan Cain. Quiet functions as a counterargument to the “extrovert ideal”: the notion, much espoused by American culture, that we should all aspire to be the loudest and the most charismatic in the room, because extroversion is the cornerstone of success. Cain points out both the value and the prevalence of introversion as a crucial personality trait with a large role to play within the sea of humanity. I find myself sucked into Quiet for an entirely opposite set of reasons than The Goldfinch — instead of hopping from one colorful, seemingly incoherent batch of characters/locales/plot twists to the next, I’m digging deep, finding my niche in precisely what Quiet has to say. Here are a few of Quiet’s insights that linger with me:
- To heck with the widespread, if subconscious, perception that if you talk more, you’re smarter. I can’t tell you how many times I default to the role of listener while feeling slightly apprehensive that others might perceive me as dull. Now I know that I have something in common with at least 1/3 of the population who are similarly inclined.
- The difference between shy and non-shy introverts is one that fascinates me, and seems important. As Cain defines it, shyness is associated with varying degrees of social anxiety, whereas introversion is a more fundamental state, a preferred mode of operating in the world, an orientation, so to speak. A non-shy person who is in an introvert simply prefers listening, observing. This distinction is interesting, I think, because it touches on one reoccurring aspect of living in a state of introversion: the contrast between the introvert’s perception of herself, versus other people’s external perceptions of her.
- Cain introduces the idea that cultural differences can account for degrees of introversion and extroversion. Not surprisingly, Americans on the whole are more extroverted than other nations, so even an American introvert might be more extroverted than, say, a Chinese extrovert? Maybe. It’s admittedly a stereotype but one that contains a lot of truth. I love idea that there are entire swaths of the American population who might feel more at home in a society halfway across the globe, especially one that is decidedly non-Western in its values and cultural norms.
- Speaking of, Cain makes a fascinating, concrete link between American cultural norms and “the extrovert ideal” in pointing out that we are a nation of immigrants. America’s history of immigration, with the verve and risk-taking involved in exporting one’s physical, emotional, and cultural lives to a foreign society, implies that a higher percentage of the country’s population are extroverts. If we don’t literally inherit the temperament of an extrovert, we are left with an immigrant culture that reinforces extroversion.
- Cain also makes the point that the Christian evangelical movement is one predicated on extroversion. Having briefly joined a Christian evangelical group when I was in college, I can testify to both the allure and the discomfort of a charismatic community in which the faith of the most outgoing members is prominently featured, compelling the community’s quieter members to develop a louder voice. In contrast, Catholicism is arguably a more contemplative, subdued, and ritualistic expression of Christian values, perhaps more suitable to introverts? It’s an interesting question, whether we gravitate toward religious traditions at least in part because they match our God-given temperaments…. I can think of many people who thrive on the bold, ebullient, assertive style of the evangelical church, but when I think about the reasons why I now worship in a Catholic setting, I have to admit that the introvert in me is more inspired and comfortable there.
- Speaking of institutions that lean heavily toward extroversion, American classrooms: As a teacher, I can certainly attest to the fact that the most “progressive” pedagogical methods tend to uphold the “extrovert ideal” in that they require small group work and discussion. But Cain writes that contrary to popular belief, creative work is best completed alone. As teachers it’s tempting to gauge the success of an activity according to how it engaged the loudest, most assertive, most restless (and potentially disruptive) students in the room, versus the quiet observers. We forget how much creativity is possible in a subdued classroom that emphasizes independent learning and with that, quiet.
These are just some of the insights to be found in Quiet. A reoccurring reward of this read — for introverts, at least — is discovering and rediscovering yourself in its pages. I found myself feeling affirmed by the fact that being an introvert accounts for an entire bundle of familiar traits — e.g., preferring friendly social settings versus competitive ones, a strong conscience and a tendency toward guilt, a high sensitivity to one’s environment coupled with a tendency to feel overstimulated in large groups, a tendency toward anxiety, a tendency to emotionally withdraw from conflict, and a “cerebral nature.” This is a non-fiction work imbued with a lot of feeling, and I encourage fellow readers to dive on in, headfirst.