Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Need a Crash Course on Web Copy? Try “Nicely Said”

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and PurposeTitle: Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose
Authors: Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
Publisher: New Riders Publishing
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

Writing can be a daunting prospect for many people, and the way that the internet has changed both how we write and how we read can make it even more so. But the realities of the modern marketing world demand writing that’s user-friendly and easy to understand. What’s a verbophobe to do?

Well, a good place to start is by reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. I’ve been writing for years in the context of websites and content management, and this is one of the most concise, thorough, and welcoming guides to online writing and editing that I’ve come across.

What really makes this book special is that it follows its own advice. All throughout, one of the most constant pieces of advice in it is to write in a friendly way that’s similar to how you would talk – and this book does that! A lot of writing and style guides take on a more authoritative tone, and sound intimidating as a result. This one doesn’t.

Nicely Said also imagines building a website from the ground up. It even uses an imaginary small business as a recurring example throughout the book of how to write and organize a website: Shortstack Books, an independent bookstore.

As the book discusses the process of doing research, writing mission statements, creating a wire frame, implementing consistent vocabulary, and even writing error messages and terms of service pages, it uses the example of Shortstack Books as its frame of reference. Although it’s a familiar technique, it works — it grounds the advice and keeps the topic from getting too abstract.

The book also includes case studies from several online companies like Etsy and Google, and provides several examples of good and bad web copy so you know what to do and what to avoid. What makes my particular editorial heart sing is that there are multiple chapters devoted to the topic of revision and workflow — processes that ordinarily strike non-communication-types with dread.

The only problem I have with Nicely Said is that it takes for granted the way the web works in 2013 and 2014. This book risks sounding dated very quickly.

However, that’s a small caveat. This is an extremely useful resource for people in a variety of contexts, like web developers and designers, not just writers and editors.

Book Review: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties

Tea: History, Terroirs, VarietiesTitle: Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties
Authors: Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais, and Hugo Americi
Publisher: Firefly Books
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

About 2 months ago, I wrote a post about how much I enjoyed drinking tea. I framed it then as a lark, a bit of humour. But it’s surprising how complex this topic is once you learn to break out of the world of supermarket bags. Saying you like white tea is similar to saying you like white wine: a good start, but nowhere near specific enough. Riesling or Chardonnay? Bai Mu Dan or Bai Hao Yin Zhen? And even a question like that only skims the surface – the manner and location of the harvest matters just as much as the cultivar.

This is something that Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties covers in depth. Written by members of the Camellia Sinensis Tea House, this book is a guide to understanding tea in all its variety, from type to location to tasting methods.

Interestingly, rather than giving a breakdown of teas according to type, book instead divides the topic up by history and region. Chapters talking about the history of tea cultivation lead into ones about tea tasting, production, and culture according to region. This is then followed up by a brief section about the art of tea tasting and a (rather disposable) chapter containing haute-cuisine recipes. A look at the science and nutrition of tea closes out the book. Overall, it’s a well-rounded discussion of the topic.

However, I feel ambivalent about this book. It tries to split the difference between discussing tea as a product and tea as a status object, which are wildly divergent approaches. I wanted to learn more about the various cultivars of tea, and which flavours are associated with each cultivar. But the writing often reads like it was meant for the kind of lifestyle magazine you’d find tucked into the back pocket of an airplane seat. This is especially true in the one-on-one interviews with various tea testers and growers that are sprinkled throughout the book. The questions are softballs (“What is your favourite tea?”) and the answers sound calculated to offend as few people as possible (“In each family of teas there are varieties of a superior quality. They are the ones I prefer.”).

This feeling is reinforced by Tea‘s coffee-table aesthetic. The photography, layout, and production quality are all lovely, and I recognize that a book like this needs a strong aesthetic impact. However, I think it would have been a more satisfying reference guide if it included the following:

  • A glossary of tea terms separate from the main body of the text – the book contains a “tasting lexicon” of terms that are often used to describe the taste of tea, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to all of the specialized language this book contains
  • A more comprehensive index (eg: a gaiwan and a zhong are the same thing, but the index only lists zhong and doesn’t include any sort of cross-reference between both terms)
  • A list of popular/common cultivars

There are some fascinating tidbits in the corners of the text that I’d love to read entire books about, like the speculative bubble surrounding sheng pu’er and the colonial background behind Indian tea production. There is an awful lot to learn about tea, and I’m just getting started. But I really wanted some more meat than what I actually got.

Book Review: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. JamesTitle: Talking About Detective Fiction
Author: P.D. James
Publisher: Vintage Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago, I read an old article by Jo Walton on Tor.com about reading protocols for SF. I’ve been aware of the concept of “reading protocols” for some time, but this article, simply by giving that concept a name, has been very useful.

Since then, I’ve wondered about how exposure to one genre affects one’s perceptions of other, different genres. Put simply: how easy is it to switch from one set of protocols to another? Are there shortcuts you can use to learn new protocols quickly?

That’s what I wanted to know when I read Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. Part history of the genre, part inquiry into detective story tropes, and part memoir, this book seemed like the shortcut I was looking for. Like speculative fiction, mysteries often follow a set of conventions that provide the reader with familiarity, comfort, and structure. Also like speculative fiction, mysteries have tropes that typify the genre to outsiders yet are seen as dated and stale by insiders. Space aliens don’t carry ray-guns anymore, and the butler didn’t always do it.

So, what have I learned about detective fiction from this book? Lots – mostly that my own perceptions about it are indeed out of date. I learned that “Golden Age” mystery novels often sacrificed plausibility in favour of ingenuity. I learned about how the post-war climates of the US and the UK contributed to making “hard boiled” and “murder mystery” fiction such divergent subgenres. I learned that the “Watson” figure long ago transformed from a walking exposition receptacle into something more nuanced.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Golden Age” mystery was relatively welcoming to women writers. James devotes an entire chapter to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham, examining their differences, similarities, and legacies. In contrast, it’s hard for me to think of four female science fiction writers (even ones who relied on male pseudonyms like Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr) who wielded such influence during SF’s own Golden Age, although I would be happy to be proven wrong.

Has this book given me all of the necessary protocols to appreciate detective fiction on its own merits? I doubt it – there are large parts of my brain that need to be rewired to fully appreciate the intricacy of the genre. But this book is as good a start as any.

Book Review: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Blood: The Stuff of LifeTitle: Blood: The Stuff of Life
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital waiting for a doctor to examine my stomach and declare with authority why it was hurting so damn much. It was a Saturday night and no walk-in clinics were open, so my husband and I took the bus to the closest ER. Part of the triage involved giving a blood sample, so I did my standard routine when it came time for the nurse to stick me with the needle, which goes something like this:

  1. Don’t look. Look as far away in the opposite direction of the blood-giving arm as you can.
  2. Make noise, or focus on existing noise, so as to avoid hearing the small suctiony sound of your blood going into the vial. (Don’t scoff. You really can hear your blood entering the vial if the room is small enough. It is not pleasant.)
  3. Mentally count off the clicks you hear as each full vial is switched out for an empty one.
  4. Wait for the sensation of the needle being withdrawn, and breathe a sigh of relief.

Except this time, #4 took an awful long time in coming. The nurse asked one of her colleagues, “Do we need 2 vials or  3?” and just sat there waiting. The needle was still in my arm. Where was the blood going? Would it fountain up out of the needle end?

When the nurse got her answer and took the final vial of blood away, she also tossed a small flexible tube into a biohazard container. It was clear, and full of my blood. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “it’s just a teaspoonful.”

I felt slightly sick at the thought. And thus did I realize that I needed to take Blood by Lawrence Hill off the TBR pile and read it post-haste.

Blood is the latest installment in the CBC’s Massey Lectures, and it’s about as far away as one can get from the previous year’s subject matter by Neil Turok. Blood is a substance that is both physically and socially complex, and Hill does his utmost to examine each of the social and physical realities surrounding it: race, vampirism, menstruation, religion, identity, transfusions, sports scandals and doping, disease, citizenship, murder, vengeance, and more.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, to marry the scientific and the sociological like that. And while Hill does do an adequate job of balancing on that tightrope, there are more than a few places where he slips and falls.

I think this is most apparent in the prose style itself. Blood is a topic full of nuance, but Hill’s writing is so portentous and repetitive that it feels like he’s struggling under sheer mythic weight of the thing he’s writing about. Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s an awfully seductive fluid. When it leaves the body, it’s a big deal. People might die. People might be accused of attempted murder, or worse. Even when it is supposed to spill – think of menstrual blood, for example, or of the blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules – it has power and significance. Maybe it is impure. Maybe it could damage you. Maybe that menstrual blood could spoil food or rob a man of his hunting power. Or maybe it is the blood of the virgin, suggestive of innocence and protection. In addition, blood acquires holy significance in the world’s pre-eminent religions. Christians consider Christ’s blood to be sacred, and imagine that they drink of it when they lift the cup of holy wine to their lips. Judaism and Islam have intricate rules about how animals are to be bled and how blood must be absent from food.

I didn’t really put my finger on what bothered me so much about his style of writing until I typed the above excerpt out. Forget the fact that he bounces around madly from murder to menstruation to sex to religion and back again. Focus instead on the digressions he makes, and the way he describes things. It can’t just be “blood from a woman’s wedding night,” but “blood from the broken hymen of a virgin on a wedding night that unfolds according to all the ancient rules.” It can’t just be “wine”, but “holy wine”, as if you’d use any other kind in a church and instead just go down to the corner store for a medium-bodied red to use for the Eucharist.

In other words, his writing doesn’t let the topic speak for itself. It spells things out to a painful degree, and in the process, fetishizes something that has already been fetishized enough. Considering that this book’s goal is to unpack a lot of the unspoken assumptions behind the idea of blood, we need less of this mystic attitude, not more.

I’m conflicted about this book in other ways as well, as there was at least one glaring factual error that I found (in the section about Harry Potter, oddly enough – aren’t there any editors at House of Anansi who have read the series?), and some truly dismissive attitudes about adolescent depression and self-cutting, such as this little gem:

Just as many young people are drawn to vampire culture, many are also drawn to cutting themselves as form of controlled self-abuse. Experts theorize that cutting among young girls is not generally the expression of suicidal impulses, but rather a way of managing pain and anxiety. The vampiric seduction is a private act, as is the act of drawing out one’s blood. People tend to get over their vampiric obsessions as they emerge from adolescence, as do most girls who have been drawn to cutting.

The vampiric attack is irreversible. Once you’ve gone over to the dark side, there is no coming back. You do get to live forever, but no longer as a human. Cutting, however, allows for more control. Who will see the marks, which you can cover up with clothing? How seriously are you to be hurt, by losing a little blood? For some, perhaps, cutting focuses one’s pain in the body, instead of in the psyche. But it is temporary. And most adolescents grow out of it.

Is this for real? “Oh, cutting isn’t that serious, it’s just an adolescent phase. How much harm can it do, anyway?” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that this passage comes right on the heels of a discussion about the Twilight series. Gee, I wonder which major demographic most commonly cuts themselves? And does there happen to be any overlap between that demographic and the demographic responsible for making Twilight a runaway success? Ah well, never mind. Those things are just phases. Let’s give them a cursory discussion just to say we talked about it and move on.

The more I think about this book and what it chose to focus on versus what it chose to skim, the more frustrated I get. And it makes me sad, because in many ways, Blood‘s observations about identity and race are trenchant and well-thought-out (which shouldn’t be a surprise, given Hill’s own ancestry). But it’s missteps like those above that get my blood boiling.

Up next: The Troop by Nick Cutter

Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John ScalziTitle: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of books about writing in 2012. Take a look for yourselves in the archives. Although the authors I read occupy different niches within the industry, they wrote mainly about the same thing: craft. They wrote about language, narrative, and the writing life. In Anne Lamott’s case, she even waxed rhapsodic about how to Being A Writer  is a Noble Calling.

Screw that. John Scalzi just wants to get paid.

Well, there’s more to him than that, but he definitely doesn’t want to be a Starving Artist.

In a display of how ever-pragmatic Scalzi isYou’re Not Fooling Anyone consists solely of his blog posts about writing, repackaged into book form. What’s refreshing about his posts, and what distinguishes them from the other books about writing that I’ve read this year, is that he doesn’t shy away from talking about money. In fact, he devotes multiple posts to talking about finances, and one post in particular to a breakdown of where his writing income comes from – even going so far as to state outright his average yearly incone.

This leads to another refreshing thing about Scalzi – he’s doesn’t hide the fact that he makes the majority of his money from corporate writing gigs. This is something that’s probably true of most fiction writers/novelists, but rarely have I seen one state so openly that the money they make from the publishing industry is the cherry on the sundae, rather than the sundae itself.

It’s also nice to hear some snark about author advances, and to hear him take a publisher, Night Shade Books, to task about its perspective on those advances. Interestingly, a few years ago Night Shade Books was placed on probation by SFWA a few years back for not meeting its financial obligations to its authors, although it’s now off probation. It’s hard not to wonder how this publisher’s contemptuous attitude towards authors in Scalzi’s post is related to its later financial troubles.

Unfortunately, since these are blog posts, they’re also quite topical, which means that they date themselves quickly. The publishing wisdom that held true six or seven years ago when Scalzi first wrote these posts doesn’t necessarily hold true now. I bet a new edition of this book with more current posts would have a lot more to say about ebooks and Amazon, for example. But this is a problem inherent to blog posts in general; it does nothing to diminish Scalzi’s skill as a writer.

So, in short: if you like snark, you’ll like this book. If you like up-front discussions of the financial aspect of being a freelance writer, you’ll like this book. But if you do like this book, you owe it to yourself to check out Whatever to see the new stuff that Scalzi has brewed up.

Up next: The High Road by Terry Fallis

Book Review: The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Title: The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos
Author: Neil Turok
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time understanding the universe.

Not in the figurative “why don’t things work the way I want them to” sense, but in the literal “why do things even exist” sense. I try to imagine what could have been before the Big Bang, or what could possibly occur after the Big Crunch, but all I see is a vast, incomprehensible nothingness that terrifies me.

It amazes me that there are men out there like Neil Turok, head of the Perimeter Institute, who can devote their time and effort to understanding these issues without going mad.

The Universe Within is the print version of this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. The lectures focus on a different theme with a different speaker each year, and in 2012, the CBC chose Neil Turok to talk about the development of quantum physics. I listened to the first lecture on the radio one night before going to bed, and found Turok’s description of Michael Faraday‘s insights about electromagetism so fascinating that I had to buy this book.

Unfortunately, much of the book’s subject matter after this point was beyond my level of understanding. This is not to slight Turok’s attempts to write about quantum physics; in many ways he’s a good communicator, and able to provide unusual real-world examples to explain complex concepts within theoretical physics. However, this subject is so abstract to a layperson like me that a lot of the time I was scratching my head.

The academic denseness is leavened by Turok’s discussion of other topics, though, like his childhood, his family’s attempts to resist apartheid, and his current efforts to improve science education across Africa. These topics, even more than his understanding of quarks and the Higgs Boson and what-have-you, have caused him to gain my respect.

One final note: although the title is The Universe Within and the cover shows a stylized drawing of a brain, this book doesn’t talk about how biological systems could interface with quantum ones. It does talk about the vast potential that quantum computers have to change our lives, but the cover gave me the idea that there would be some discourse within about  the link between quantum activity and human biological activity. Although this is a misinterpretation on my part, let it be known that a book or chapter discussing this topic would be absolutely awesome.

Up next: Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Book Review: The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar

Title: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat
Author: Dave Tomar
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Something interesting happened when I publicized my decision to become a freelance writer: more than one person told me that I should consider writing papers for university and college students.

I, being the kind of university student, who, you know, actually wrote all my papers myself, was shocked at this suggestion, and dismissed it out of hand. Now I have Dave Tomar to thank for showing me what a world of frustration, indignation, and heartbreak I’ve avoided.

The Shadow Scholar is an in-depth look at what it’s like to be a writer for a paper mill, and what circumstances drove Tomar to, and kept him in, the industry. Student debt. A lacklustre education that left him with few marketable skills. (Incidentally, this book is the second story I’ve come across that makes Rutgers University sound like an absolute shithole.) A bad economy.

It’s also a portrait of desperation, as well as an exposé of how truly messed-up the modern education system is. However, despite the sense of crusading against corruption that his book exudes, Tomar himself doesn’t come out looking like the best of people. He hates his job and the toll it takes on his body. He has contempt for his clients. He uses drugs to either keep himself alert or to dull the meaninglessness of his existence. He also gets into long digressions about his on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife, which lends an unnecessary whiff of soap-opera drama to the proceedings.

This brings me to the heart of The Shadow Scholar‘s problem: its author. Most people assume that the paper mill business a seedy one, and so it makes sense that Tomar himself is more than a little seedy – who else but a cynical opportunist would take this sort of job on? But a large part of the book’s focus is spent on arguing exactly how and why America’s higher education system needs to change. This in and of itself is a respectable goal, but Tomar tries very hard to make himself out as a tortured, Charles-Bukowski-like figure – in short, exactly the kind of person whom it would be best not to take advice from. Tomar’s paper mill career already turns him into an unsympathetic narrator – he just makes it harder for himself by sounding like a self-absorbed jackass.

Up next: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words – it would be a surprise if I weren’t an introvert!

However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.

One of the best aspects of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don’t have a specific reason for being there, or don’t know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I’m comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.

Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.

Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.)  Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you’re vigilant, you’re wary, which means that you’re probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.

Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don’t we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don’t we value independence and intense focus?

Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it’s a question I’ve thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.

Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of “introvert cultures” and “extrovert cultures” and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: “Western” society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but “Asian” society is an introvert culture.

What’s bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What’s worse is that she treats “Asian” culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don’t show up in a massive majority of the world’s population.

All that aside, in many other ways the book’s information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain’s descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I’ve felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.

Up next: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Book Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Title: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Author: Michael Lewis
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I am not a financial expert. I understand the underpinnings of the financial crisis that started in 2008 well enough, but all of the cogs and gears within that unholy machine – the CDOs, the ratings, the tranches, the hedge bets – are a bunch of mumbo jumbo. One of Michael Lewis’ gifts is bringing the obscure workings of the financial markets into clear (if hideous) focus.

That’s what The Big Short is all about. However, instead of a rote retelling of why things went pear-shaped in 2008, he instead tackles the mirror image of that financial disaster: The story of the small group of Wall Street professionals who saw the mass of subprime mortgages for what it was and decided to bet on the whole house of cards collapsing.

One of Lewis’ greatest strengths is his ability to help us remember who the “good guys” are in the narrative – those who saw the system for what it was, as opposed to those who upheld the status quo and so allowed the financial crisis to happen. Considering the extent to which the financial industry relied on jargon and regulatory laziness to stay afloat, this is no small feat.

My only complaint about The Big Short is that one of the principals in it, Steve Eisman, sounded so different from other traders that I wanted to learn more about how he developed his personal philosophy. Alone among the traders profiled in the book, Eisman realized the social and class implications of the subprime mortgage crisis. His perspective is similar to that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I want to know more about how he gradually realized that the actions of the financial industry were hurting those in the lower and middle classes.

Up next: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Author: Charles Duhigg
Publisher: Random House
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

In many ways, habits define us – the routes we take to work; the things we eat, drink, or inhale; the ways we interact with others. But a bad habit is one of the hardest things to get rid of, no matter how much we may want to change. Thus, Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit promises to appeal to people (like me) who read self-help books, non-fiction, and books about psychology or medicine.

At this point, it’s best to use Duhigg’s own words to explain how habits work. Here’s an excerpt from his fascinating piece in the New York Times, which was in turn what spurred me to read the book:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.

In the book, Duhigg reviews behavioural psychology research and analyzes individuals, corporations, and social networks that have used the principals of habit formation to their own advantage. However, while this approach is fascinating, it does have its flaws.

For one thing, it takes some stretching to fit several of the case studies into the three-step model at the centre of the book. Showing how Target analyzes shopping habits to improve sales and take advantage of buyer psychology is one thing. Arguing that it was Rosa Parks’ social habits – her weak and strong connections across several layers of society – that galvanized Montgomery into organizing such a successful bus boycott is another thing entirely. Social interactions are much harder to boil down into the “habit loop” than the book implies.

The most successful sections deal with personal attempts to change habits, and corporate/institutional attempts to do the same. The chapter on Target – much of which is included in the NYT article above – is possibly the most engrossing yet simultaneously frightening thing I’ve read in a while. Things like Target’s “pregnancy prediction database” make you realize just how thoroughly we’re monitored every day.

Likewise, I appreciated the opening section that talked about Lisa, a woman who overcame multiple bad habits – poor diet, lack of exercise, financial irresponsibility – and turned her life around completely through the simple act of setting one goal for the future.

But it is precisely these two halves of the story that point to The Power of Habit’s biggest flaw. Was Duhigg trying to write a self-help book or a piece of long-form investigative journalism? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the chapters are separated out to highlight this division. The prologue with Lisa’s story and the final chapter of the book sound like self-help writing, but the chapters on Target, radio stations, football teams, and Starbucks fit into the mold of other non-fiction books established by writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis.

It’s an interesting read, but it left me feeling strangely unsatisfied. Instead, try going with the New York Times article he wrote – it’s definitely got bang for the buck.

Up next: Among Others by Jo Walton