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The Art of Choosing (thoughts)

April 6, 2010

I’m really choosy about accepting review copies these days…my average is probably less than one a month. But there were three things that made me happy to accept Dr. Sheena Iyengar*‘s offer of her book The Art of Choosing. First, it’s popular nueroscience/psychology (really, more of the latter, but before I read it I thought it would be more of the former), which regular readers will know is one of my favourite things to read. Second, Dr. Atul Gawande, who I discovered last year and now adore, was one of the blurbs in the e-mail. And finally, it has the best book trailer I’ve seen:

Doesn’t that make you want to read the book?! That being said, I was still a bit nervous when I opened it up. I wasn’t impressed with Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and he was the other blurb on the back cover. But then I saw the table of contents, with chapter titles like “Senses and Sensibility” and “Lord of the Things,” and I began to relax. Turning another page, I saw that the prologue began with a Joseph Campbell quote, one of my favourites: “Everything begins with a story.” And then I began to grin. This was going to be my kind of book.

And let’s just get this out of the way upfront: I adored this book. Every page was a delight, and I often brought it into the hot tub with me as my pre-bedtime reading when I was down in San Antonio. Because even though it’s full of intelligence and scientific rigour, it’s also full of humour and stories and writing that draws you along. This is what popular science should be: informative and inspiring.

One of my favourite aspects of the book is that Dr. Iyengar goes into such detail when describing her experiments! It’s such a walk through the scientific process, with its progress and set backs. And just goes to show that the ‘soft’ sciences are no less valid. ;) In one of her studies, she looked at the impact of ‘too much choice’ via jams in a British grocery story known for its over-the-top inventory (they stocked over 300 jam flavours). Two her of students ran a tasting booth that switched between offering a mere 6 flavours and 24. Once the potential customers had tasted as much as they wanted, they were given a coupon they could use to get a dollar off any of the jams. The barcode of the coupon tracked whether those exposed to more or fewer flavours went on to actually buy jam. Isn’t that brilliant?! There are all sorts of neat experiments in here, and she’s careful to spell out her controls. It makes for fun reading!

Another thing I loved was the book’s breadth. Dr. Iyengar looks at the fashion industry, children, the ethics of patient v. doctor choice, arranged v. non-arranged marriage, how friends order at a restaurant, and more. She devotes enough time to each topic for me to be grounded, but it was so neat to see how choice plays out in different realms of human life. Dr. Iyengar also brings her awareness of different cultures (her parents were Sikh immigrants, and Dr. Iyengar herself is blind, both of which she discusses) to the book, which made it feel so rich. Oh, and she’s so smart! Not just in science-things, but in her references to literature and politics and everything else…it’s such a joy to read a book by an intelligent, perceptive person, don’t you think?

In case you couldn’t guess, I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a glimmer of interest in the subject. And since the subject of The Art of Choosing is really about how human life plays out, should everyone be interested? If you haven’t watched the book trailer up above, please do so. And know that the book lives up to the trailer’s promise! (And if you’re participating in the Science Book Challenge 2010, this would be a great selection for it.)


Footnote One: I never know the etiquette behind referring to authors who also have PhDs (or M.D.s for that matter). What do y’all do?

50 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 6:29 am

    This one sounds amazing! I’m actually really interested in this topic, as I’ve noticed that limiting my book choices from my ENTIRE to-be-read pile to a smaller selection has actually made my life and reading much, much easier and more fruitful. Awesome! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

    • April 7, 2010 11:50 am

      Limiting my TBR choices has helped me too! You should read it & then write about that in your review. :)

  2. April 6, 2010 6:51 am

    I have a feeling I would really love this book! One question–does she give any hints on *how* to make choices…I wouldn’t say I necessarily make bad choices so much as that I just stress inordinately over the process. ;)

    I’m interested to hear what people say about the etiquette of referring to authors…I’ve never been sure of the way to address them either. (I do know it totally cracks me up when Rich receives mail to “Dr.” Stevens though.)

    • April 7, 2010 11:51 am

      Hmmm…..I wouldn’t say she gives a lot of hints on how to make choosing easier for yourself. For customers, maybe. :) Since my dad is in the Air Force, he gets stuff addressed to Chief or CMSgt ___. It cracks me up too!

  3. April 6, 2010 7:09 am

    I definitely need to be choosier about review copies! But part of the problem is something will *sound* interesting, and it isn’t until I see it and flip through it that I know I won’t like it!

    I love the 300 jams story. I can’t imagine having that many! Although I often go to The Mustard Museum in Wisconsin (or you can “go” online) and they have zillions of mustards.

    I like your line “This is what popular science should be: informative and inspiring.” I agree, as you know! :–)

    • April 7, 2010 11:52 am

      lol! I try to go to Amazon and read the first few pages; that usually gives me a good feel for things. :) Um, I want to visit that Mustard Museum. Mustard’s so magical!

  4. April 6, 2010 7:37 am

    I first came across this book in the most unlikely of places: the Home & Garden section of the NY Times in a feature on how Iyengar furnished her home, selecting pieces to express her that she couldn’t even see. The mentions of The Art of Choosing were by far the most interesting part of the article though and I’m happy to hear that you found it to be such a captivating read!

    • April 7, 2010 11:53 am

      That is an unlikely place! Interesting, though. In the book, she talks about how she chooses nail polish, since she can’t see. :)

  5. April 6, 2010 9:01 am

    Thanks for this review, Eva. This reminded me of Johah Lehrer’s new book How We Decide. It was recommended to me, but I haven’t gotten too far into it. In the introduction Lehrer uses mostly football and airline pilots as examples to illustrate how we make decisions, which made me want to give the book to my husband to read instead. This one by Dr. Sheena Iyengar sounds like it would be more up my alley. It’s interesting how both books use food for their covers. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but How we Decide has three ice cream cones on the cover (vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry) and now this one has the apple and orange. I noticed you have a positive review of Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist . HOpefully, you’ll be able to read his new one soon. THanks again!

    • April 7, 2010 11:54 am

      I have seen the How We Decide cover (it makes me crave ice cream every time!). And I definitely intend to pick it up oen of these days. I think it’d be a nice complement, since Lehrer is more neuroscience and Dr. Iyengar is more psych.

  6. April 6, 2010 9:09 am

    This does sound fascinating. Too many options to choose from can be overwhelming, especially when you’re not used to it.

    • April 7, 2010 11:55 am

      Yep, and she talks about the studies re: seven things being our limit.

  7. April 6, 2010 9:27 am

    Wow, this sounds great! Popular nonfiction can sometimes be disappointing to me in its overly-softened quality, but it sounds like Iyengar really trusts the intelligence of her readers, while also working to be engaging. I’ll be looking into it!

    • April 7, 2010 11:55 am

      I’m not a fan of overly softened stuff either. Dr. Iyengar does write for a ‘lay’ audience, in that she explains things, but she doesn’t assume we’re morons. Which is nice. ;)

  8. April 6, 2010 9:54 am

    This looks like something I would absolutely love! I’ll be adding it to my wish list!

  9. Rachel permalink
    April 6, 2010 10:32 am

    The protocol for the Ph.D. and Master’s thing is typically that you refer to Ph.D.’s as Dr., but for Master’s degrees, it’s a little more subjective. If you’re referring to a business book for example, adding the MBA after the first mention of their name is pretty standard, but no need to add it every time.

    • April 7, 2010 11:56 am

      But what about when they’re authors? When you’re reviewing nonfiction, do you check if the author has Ph.D. first?

  10. April 6, 2010 10:35 am

    Oh I know this! I saw her interviewed on a CBC night-time news program, I don’t know the interviewer’s name but the other person there was Kevin O’Leary (y’know, Dragon’s Den, The Shark Tank – he’s not half as much a bastard off those shows!).

    I remember her telling the story of the supermarket with all the choices, and conducting an experiment there – fascinating stuff. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we have too much choice … and there’s too much crap being made to satisfy it. I was thinking “I’d like to read that book!” and then I forgot about it! Is it out yet or coming soon?

    • April 7, 2010 11:56 am

      It came out March 1st. :) I guess I should’ve mentioned that!

  11. April 6, 2010 11:20 am

    How cool! I’ve heard of this, but wasn’t planning to read it – exactly because it reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell, and I am on the outs with him ever since he said nasty things about Atticus Finch. I think I shall add this to my list after all.

    • April 7, 2010 11:57 am

      He insulted Atticus?! OMG, that’s so unforgiveable. But yeah, as a non-Gladwell fan, I really enjoyed this one.

      • April 8, 2010 5:46 am

        I know! And his arguments were (I think) very silly. He says, “The Ewells are [depicted as] trash. When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure.” Which I completely disagree with. All in all the column strikes me as wanting to do that thing of tearing down figures that everyone admires just for the sake of it.

  12. Kathleen permalink
    April 6, 2010 11:57 am

    What a fascinating trailer and review! Since we all make thousands of choices a day (including me choosing to read and then comment on your review) it seems there is something in this book for everyone! I am a big believer in choices vs. fate too so I think this would appeal to me on that level as well.

  13. April 6, 2010 12:18 pm

    This sounds so very interesting! Ah, I wish I had more time to read!

  14. April 6, 2010 2:01 pm

    Oh, SAD. I was offered this book and turned it down. Then I saw an NYT article about the author (did you know she’s blind?) and sent her an email saying something like, “I’m sorry I can’t read your book, but it must be some consolation that the NYT has enough time to do so.”

    I lie. I did not say that, but I DID contact the author after reading the NYT article about her to say it sounds like a fascinating book and I hope to read it eventually.

    Now I feel like I should have made time to get the copy to read. SIGH. Woe is me.

    • April 7, 2010 11:58 am

      LOL @ your hypothetical e-mail! Is this a bad time to tell you that my ARC is signed? :p

      • April 7, 2010 12:48 pm

        REALLY? Woe is me AND a plague is upon my house!!

  15. April 6, 2010 4:16 pm

    ooooooh wonderful….where’s my wishlist???

  16. April 6, 2010 4:55 pm

    This sounds like my type of book! Adding to TBR!

    Have you read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath? I think you may like it. They have new book (Switch) that just came out but I hadn’t read it yet.

    • April 7, 2010 11:59 am

      I hadn’t even heard of Made to Stick before! But now I’m off to find out more about it. Thanks for the rec. :)

  17. April 6, 2010 8:21 pm

    This book has intrigued me since I first heard of it and the trailer makes me glad that I bought it. Now if I could just learn to choose to bump it up higher in my to be read pile!

  18. April 6, 2010 8:47 pm

    Yay, I’m so glad this book is good! I accepted it for review a bit ago, but haven’t gotten around to reading it just yet. The thing that appealed to me about it was the breadth of topics it seemed to cover — I felt like there had to be a few things that would interest me given the scope of what she is covering.

    • April 7, 2010 11:59 am

      It’s a pretty light and quicj read too. :)

  19. April 7, 2010 1:36 am

    This sounds like a really interesting book.
    I have to disagree about the trailer, it got on my nerves. I’m trying to put into words why, but I can’t really?

    • April 7, 2010 12:00 pm

      Really? That’s so interesting! I wonder if your non-American background has something to do w/ it.

      • April 7, 2010 12:17 pm

        Hm, it might. At least, when I was watching I thought: this sounds too “American” to me, but I didn’t want to mention it because I think it sounds so prejudiced and I cannot even explain properly what I mean by that phrase. So um, I think it might, but then I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m all judgemental. I just think it’s certainly catered towards an American market and that the video would be a bit different if it was made for the EU.

      • April 7, 2010 12:19 pm

        heehee I agree! :) I thought the video was geared towards in Americans too. But in the book, Dr. Iyengar does a good job of looking at diff. cultures & acknowledging that America isn’t the only place in the world. If that helps!

  20. April 7, 2010 12:29 pm

    You are evil. You keep writing these posts about all these great books and my poor Mt TBR is now rivaling Everest!

    Seriously though, this does sound like a really interesting book. And with regards to the Dr thing. I call them Dr SuchandSuch :)

    • April 8, 2010 1:53 pm

      You’ve caught on to my nefarious plans….

      It sounds like everyone types Dr. _ in their reviews! So I guess I’ll have to start making sure I’m doing that too. :)

  21. April 7, 2010 5:16 pm

    I was eyeing this one in the store the other day, but I managed to not adopt it.

    • April 8, 2010 1:53 pm

      Sooo…if buying a book is adopting it, does that mean my library addiction makes me a foster mom?

  22. April 11, 2010 3:32 pm

    This sounds brilliant! I love this sort of book… and recommend Robert Wiseman’s ‘Quirkology’. Will definitely be on the look-out for this… why has nobody offered this to me, I’d leap at it!!

    • April 14, 2010 3:05 pm

      Thanks for recommending Quirkology to me! I hope my library has it. :) I bet you could e-mail Dr. Iyengar and ask for a copy!

  23. April 24, 2010 6:19 am

    Awesome review and awesome-sounding book! It’s going on my TBR list immediately. And thanks for the heads up on the Science Book Challenge — that’s definitely right up my alley and I’m signing up ASAP.


  1. Review: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

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