The Art Of Choosing

Link: This review appears on Amazon-UK here. And on Amazon-US here.

With a researcher’s and practitioner’s interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages (not including acknowledgment and references) in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range – from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our “framing” of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a “freedom to” or “freedom from”, as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of “metaphorical multilingualism”, using the example of how she herself uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and then shows yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitmanesque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when the two are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a “value” on things which have “worth” for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was “moderately unique” or “very unique”. This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.

Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Um…: Slips, Tumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean

Link: The Amazon Review is here.

Um…, as I shall refer to the book, is an unusual book on many counts. I read books in several non-fiction genres. But books, that marry genres, such as food memoirs of MFK Fisher or Mark Abley’s language-cum-travel memoirs, find favour with me.

I read Um… on an oblique recommendation from a friend, who was reading it too. I found it overall a fascinating book especially for those with an itch for being pedantic about language, grammar and its uses and abuses. Was the friend trying to tell me something? There is a thought I shall leave unexplored, because I believe we are quite direct with each other and need not bother with dropping hints.

At a good 252 pages, not including the useful glossary and appendices, Um… pre-requires the reader to have a deep love for languages, in general. It would also add greatly to the enjoyment of the book, if the reader is curious about linguistic quirks and history.

In return for all this, the author, Michael Erard, a linguist and a PhD in English, presents with irreverence and panache, this work of ‘applied blunderology’ – or ‘word botching’ as a back cover reviewer describes it – that aims to examine how verbal blunders happen, what they mean and if they matter. This chronicle of the history of verbal slips, tumbles and blunders from the time of Reverend Spooner to President George W. Bush is written accessibly with humour, and has been edited tightly so as to be free of the bloopers that are its subject.

The 11-chapter book starts with the story of Reverend Spooner who lends his name to ‘spoonerisms’. As usual, the facts are not half as fun as the story, which is not the writer’s fault, but the story has been told well, which is to the writer’s credit, especially since he weaves with it the story of the changes in the understanding of human cognition.

A longer second chapter on the Freudian slip follows dispelling or at least challenging the commonly held notion that a Freudian slip must hint at something sexual or repressed. Soon after reading the chapter, I addressed the said friend, as ‘My <Name>‘ instead of ‘Mr <Name>‘. However since he too had read the book, I was able to retract my mistake quickly and without embarrassment on either side.

‘Some Facts about Verbal Blunders’ discusses the origins and peculiarities of blunders and slips, how they vary from person to person; how they indicate a person’s physical, emotional and mental state; and how there really are knows-better and doesn’t-know-better types of errors in human speech. Erard says he is fascinated by ‘knows better’ type of errors and by how they get treated like some sort of moral failing (note to self: I need to start checking my tendency to proof-read nearly everything set in front of me, including Um… and to stop wondering how he knows me so well.).

The chapters that follow discuss technical, social and biological aspects of language, and speech disfluencies; the brief history of ‘Um…’ and the story of Toastmasters. My favourite chapter in the book was Erard’s assessment of President Blunder, oops, Bush and how societally pre-determined and inextricable from their speaking abilities our expectations of ‘leaders’ are. The book concludes with the author’s hope of note on the future of blunderology, that we may come to watch, forgive and enjoy our blunders.

Erard warns readers that a side-effect of reading the book may be that a pedant’s antennae become unusually fine-tuned to listening for and catching disfluencies, boners, eggcorns, mondegreens and (what I call) “snooperisms”, not just in others, but in oneself too. That certainly was my experience. I also began to notice much more my own self-correction tendencies as well as those of others.

The book is not an easy read all through, but that is probably just my experience. Some chapters, in my view, seriously need the non-linguist to re-read. I also read rather rapidly so sometimes delayed connections made in my neural circuits require me to return to the text. This book has not yet had that second outing with me. The writing style changes in difficulty levels sometimes, so the time taken to read and absorb may vary from chapter to chapter. This too could be a side-effect of the fact that I am trying to take some notes which I condense into the book review, and may not apply to a reader, reading for fun.

Overall, a great read. Set aside about 6-7 hours for it and they will not have been wasted.

Star rating: 4 out of 5.

Usefulness note: An advantage of such a book available in festive times of the year is that it solves the problem of buying a present for the dedicated and curious pedant(s) in one’s life. This book makes it to my to-gift list this year.