Simplexity, by Jeffrey Kluger (Hardcover, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Despite some flaws (addressed in moment), Simplexity is interesting and intellectually stimulating. The premise for the book, as discussed in the prologue, is that simplicity and complexity are often juxtapositioned and intertwined. This is relevant in today's world, in which real life increasingly resembles trying to get breakfast at Fawlty Towers.
Kluger has a crisp, efficient writing style. He is also one of those rare authors who shows a strong command of Standard Written English. Missing in this text are the normal problems of misplaced modifiers, misused words (I was relieved that this author wasn't impacting anybody--ouch!), parallel sentence structure, and all of the other gaffes that normally add an unnecessary layer of complexity and confusion to the typical book published today.
Simplexity consists of eleven chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. The title of each chapter is a question, and each chapter is subtitled with a "Confused by" slug (e.g., "Confused by Silence"). Each chapter contains a wealth of information and insights easily worth the price of the entire book.
Kluger does a wonderful job of explaining the intertwining of complexity and simplicity, and that is the overall theme of the book. Thus the title, "Simplexity." But there's a second theme on the very different subject of paradoxes, and entire chapters follow that theme instead of the main one. The extra material is good, but it seems out of step with the title and subtitle.
A fix for this would have be to divide the book into Parts. Part 1 would contain the chapters that clearly follow the theme of the book. Part 3 would contain the chapters that follow the second theme. Part 2 would provide the bridge, explaining how Part 3 necessarily arises out of Part 1. That's really what's missing. The book is a collection of articles rather than a structured work wherein each chapter builds on previous material. That doesn't make it a bad book (it's not), but that does make it a book that falls short of its potential (it does).
Since the chapters could appear in any order, a chapter-centric synopsis of the book isn't useful. So, let's look at just Chapter Seven. It's entitled "Why do we always worry about the wrong things?" and has a subtitle "Confused by Fear." Kluger starts this chapter with the following:
"It would be a lot easier to enjoy your day if there weren't so many things trying to kill you before sundown. The problems start before you're even fully awake. There's the fall out of bed that kills six hundred Americans each year. There's the early morning coronary, which is 30 to 50 percent more likelier than the kind that strikes later in the day. There's the fatal tumble down the stairs, the bite of sausage...." He goes on to describe many other dangers.
This leads to his question, "Have we simply become overwhelmed by all the fear and uncertainty we face--remaining understandably jumpy over the 3,000 who died on September 11, for example, but giving little thought to the 220,000 who have perished on the nation's highways since?"
Then Kluger delves into how and why humans routinely make irrational choices. And that's the big clue. Those choices spring from the amygdala (emotional seat), not the cortex (logical seat). Kluger looks at many examples of this, and it makes for a fascinating read. It also explains quite a bit about why we routinely make choices that we later see, upon analysis, weren't the correct ones.
Faults and caveats
Like many authors on nonfiction lists today, Kluger can't resist the temptation to insert his personal opinions into the work, as though they are fact. This is a disturbing trend in the publishing world today, and this practice never fails to diminish a book. One mark of a good nonfiction author is there's no personal editorializing. Any controversial ideas get fair and balanced coverage. Any ideas that aren't relevant to the central theme just don't get presented.
Kluger fails this test. He expresses his political opinions matter of factly, as though there is only one valid viewpoint (his). Kluger uses a combination of manipulative word choices, "Easter eggs," and unsubstantiated claims to squeeze a personal political agenda into what could have been an unquestionably informative book. If he wanted to write a book supporting the idea that criminals should be protected from law-abiding citizens rather than the other way around, he should have done that with another book and left such a bizarre line of thinking out of this book. Ditto, for some other presumptions he makes.
Kluger chose not to provide authority for his work. One of the main things that lends authority to a book is its bibliography. This book doesn't have one (maybe a protected criminal stole it?). But a bibliography isn't always necessary for a work to be considered authoritative. For example:
- We could consider the text to be the musings
of an expert in the field the book covers. If Larry Ellison wrote
about databases, we would consider that a serious book on databases
by virtue of the qualifications of the author. Unfortunately, Kluger
doesn't have any expert qualifications that bear on the topic of
this book. That is somewhat muted by the fact that he quotes experts
throughout the text, though we really don't have the context from
which those quotes sprang.
- We could consider the text to be the result
of reasoned analysis by an insightful and interesting person. While
Kluger is insightful and interesting, he also suffers from the
flawed thinking mentioned earlier. Thus, he does not write
authoritatively by virtue of a penchant for reasoned analysis. That
is somewhat muted somewhat by his many examples that illustrate the
point being made. To his credit, all of the examples are relevant
and most of them are logical.
My personal authority for commenting on reasoning is a perfect score
on the Watson-Glaser test of reasoning. Only 25% of people at the
college level ever score higher than 75%. Many law school
programs will accept applicants who score 60%.
One fix for the lack of authoritativeness would be to remove the personal opinion insertions. This would necessarily remove the flawed reasoning upon which those opinions are predicated, and thus not leave the reader second-guessing every other point the author makes. The good material would clearly stand on its merits, unstained and undiluted by the editorializing. And, yes, there is plenty of good material in this book.
Another fix would be to present a bibliography that supports facts and assertions, backnoting them as they appear in the text. This would also clue the reader where to look for more information on a topic that holds enormous potential on both a personal and societal level. A study of the premise of this book could lead to solutions to most of the problems society faces today.
That includes everything from gadgets so complex they're nearly useless, to the way we mis-run and mis-fund our mis-governments and most other institutions. There's a reason why "bureaucracy" isn't considered a compliment. Chapter 10 will give you a full understanding of that reason.
If Kluger drew on a wealth of information, why not share the wealth, so to speak, by revealing the sources? I feel cheated, as a reader, to find that information missing. It may be missing simply because Kluger is a writer for Time Magazine. While sources are normally end-noted with a bibliography in professional society magazines (term-paper style), we typically don't find that in consumer magazines. I'm not a Time Magazine reader, so I checked it out online and didn't see bibliographies in any of the articles (but they have some great stuff!).
From a structural perspective, Kluger's background as a magazine writer becomes even more obvious (that's not a bad thing; it just is). Each chapter strikes me as an extended (and well-written) magazine article. As a big fan of magazines, I don't find this objectionable in itself. Writing the book as more of an anthology of related articles than a structured work did leave the book as less than it could have been. However, they are darn good articles except where Kluger strays into personal opinion injection.
To buy or not to buy, that is the question
If you're looking for something that can help stimulate some good conversation among bright friends, this book is a worthwhile read. You can use any chapter as the basis for conversations far more engaging than what the weather is like or which celebrity is sleeping with another celebrity's significant other.
If you are involved in problem-solving or policy-setting, this book can help you step back and ask the questions you should be asking. The simplest solutions are usually the best solutions, but sometimes what seems simple isn't. Kluger's thoughts on this will help you sort things out.
If you feel like you are running on the treadmill of life and someone keeps turning up the speed, you may be able to get things back under control by reading this book one chapter at a time and reflecting on how things got so complicated. While you won't be able to wave a magic wand and instantly simplify everything, you should be able to pick up on Kluger's ideas and start identifying which complexities you can replace with simpler, less stressful options.
Despite some flaws, this book is so full of gems that passing it up would be unwise.