BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Interesting, but very biased ...

As regular readers will appreciate, I've bitched a lot about the run of “business books” that I've ended up getting from the “Early Reviewer” program. It's not that I mind getting the genre (I do, after all, put in “requests” for those titles), but month after month it seemed like I'd always get the business book rather than any other sort of book that I might have indicated wanting.. As such, this month's book, Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas by John Pollack was a bit of fresh air … being a book more or less about writing.

I have a couple of qualms with this book, one being minor – the title – the body of the book does not really frame the subject of analogies in the context of being a “Shortcut” (although, one could obviously follow a twisty route to get to the point where one argued that an analogy was a “shortcut” from getting one's audience from mental point A to mental point B), and I sort of kept waiting for Pollack to get around to setting that up. I also had a “huh?” response to the cover, although I suppose the dominoes featured refer to the “domino theory” from the Vietnam war (mentioned in the book), with the middle one having the pips replaced with a winky emoticon – an analogy in and of itself, I suppose (although it didn't really work for me).

The second is a bit more personal, and philosophical, and can be expressed as a caveat: if your political stance is somewhere to the right of the smarmy Left-loving mass media, be prepared to be outright insulted at least a half dozen times through the book. Pollack was a speech writer for President Clinton, and his loyalties for the liberal end of the spectrum are very clear … but in a way that is so off-the-cuff that one has to wonder if he's just another liberal who never exits the cesspool of Washington (or New York, or San Francisco) leftism, so assumes those muddy waters are just “the world as it is” … much like the famous quote about Nixon's 1972 historic landslide election (over McGovern) by New Yorker writer Pauline Kael: “Nobody I know voted for him!”. Repeatedly, he will shift from a very interesting, informative piece of exposition about how analogies work in various situations to a snarky hostile attack on some conservative figure. In only one case does he follow one of these muggings with a weak admission that “his side” is also guilty of similar “sins”. I suspect that this is yet another example of the Left's regular version of “frat house sexism”, assuming that everybody you're writing for has the same biases you do, and figuring you'll be scoring points by a “clever” attack that everybody can giggle about and agree what troglodytes those Republicans are. The fact that the tone shifts so dramatically in these attacks makes me assume that his editors “were in on the joke”, since it would have improved the book to have excised them, and yet there they are.

These grievances having been aired, the rest of the book is interesting enough, drawing on literary, historical, and psychological sources to illustrate how analogies work in theory, and classic cases where they were key elements of famous speeches, etc. Pollack posits a model in which “the most persuasive analogies achieve five things:
  1. Use the familiar to explain something less familiar.

  2. Highlight similarities and obscure differences.

  3. Identify useful abstractions.

  4. Tell a coherent story.

  5. Resonate emotionally
He takes these and “picks apart” several famous inventions and developments (as well as commercials and speeches) according to that model, including examples involving Copernicus, Gutenberg, Darwin, Ford's Edsel, Berners-Lee's “web”, and exchanges between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

One element that I found fascinating is his relating the function of analogies to brain patterns revealed in the research of neuroscientist Benjamin Bergen of UCSD, which strongly reminded me of the Neuro-Linguistic Psychology materials I've read (although I don't believe Bergen's involved in that field).
“... {words} will trigger the firing of neurons that, to one degree or another, echo patterns created by … actual experiences in our lives, or secondary knowledge of such experiences. According to Bergen's research and that of others, this is because we are using much of the same basic equipment in the brain to imagine {something} as we do when we actually see {that thing}. Similarly, if you are told to think about the actual motions you make in opening your front door, your brain will fire many of the same neurons as it does when you actually do open your door, except that in the imagined scenario, the brain inhibits the actual execution of those motions.”
Pollack takes this research to suggest an “analogical instinct” where the words shape the reality, and so are very influential in manipulating people's world views. To illustrate this, some famed speeches of history are examined, including Churchill's “Finest Hour” broadcasts, and Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech. Interestingly, both of these men were students of oratory, and the language structures involved. Churchill even published a paper on the subject. Another example provided is how Franklin Roosevelt had to “sell” the American people on the idea of throwing in behind England at the start of WW2 … using an analogy of lending one's neighbor a hose to help put out a fire in his house as a way to frame the huge expenditures that he was trying to get approved by Congress.

In the closing chapters the author bemoans how linguistic subtleties such as analogies have been progressively “dumbed down” out of the educational mainstream, including having the “analogies” section of the SAT exam removed by the College Board in 2005, replaced by an essay section. He quotes New York Times write Adam Cohen on this:
“Intentionally misleading comparisons are becoming the dominant mode of public discourse ... the ability to tell true analogies from false ones has never been more important.” While every American should be able to write well … “... we would be better off with a nation of analogists.”
Shortcut is one of the rare “Early Reviewer” titles which actually arrived “early”, and it's still a couple of weeks from official publication. It will, no doubt, be out in the better-stocked brick-and-mortar locations mid-September, but the on-line big boys have it for pre-order, presently at about a 25% discount from cover price. Again, where this book fails is in its insensitivity to its (author's) biases, and how you will like it will no doubt depend on how deep you are into leftist groupthink. I suspect that most conservative readers would give it a “C” for interesting ideas and analysis, while your garden-variety liberal would gleefully give it an “A” for those factors, plus playing to their “in group” snickering. As noted above, a firmer hand on the editorial tiller could have fixed this problem by saying “no” to the partisan broadsides ... but “permissiveness” is a hallmark of that camp, so what can one expect.

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Tags: book review
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