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Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz (thoughts)

March 5, 2012

I have read so many truly excellent nonfiction books this year, and Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz takes its place as one of my very favourites. Schulz is a journalist, but this book has more of a popular philosophy style than her day job might suggest. Essentially, she’s taken a cross-disciplinary approach to ‘wrongness’; Being Wrong combines science, philosophy, psychology, and history to create an excellent book about something fundamental to all of us. She also uses one of my favourite nonfiction techniques, combining stories of individual people with larger picture analysis. And there are even interactive bits, including optical illusions! I enjoyed every page of this, and while it satisfied my intellectual curiousity, it also went deeper than that and, as cliché as it sounds, touched a bit of my soul. Take this bit, from the marvelous concluding chapter:

Our mistakes, when we face up to them, show us both the world and the self from previously unseen angles, and remind us to care about perspectives other than our own. And, whether we like it or not, they also serve as real-life plot devices, advancing our own story in directions we can never foresee. Through error-as through the best works of art-we both lose and find ourselves.

Ok, one more:

In a sense, all wrongness is optimism. We err because we believe, above all, in ourselves: no matter how often we have gotten things wrong in the past, we evince an abiding and touching faith in our own stories and theories. Traditionally, we are anxious to deny that those stories and theories are stories and theories-that we must rely on our own imperfect representations of the world, and are therefore destined to err. But, to risk a bit of blasphemy, stories and theory may be all we have that God does not. They are the hallmark of two of our highest human endeavors, art and science, and through them we can imagine new realities.
That is why error, even though it sometimes feels like despair, is actually much closer to in spirit to hope. …The great advantage of realising that we have told a story about the world is realising that we can tell a better one: rich with better ideas, better possibilities-even, perhaps, better people.

Do I sound too blurb-y? Sometimes, I feel like when I really love a book my posts come off sounding too general. After all, how many ways are there to describe a talented, intelligent writer and a thought-provoking, fascinating book? But I think what Schulz is doing, reclaiming error and show how it can play a good role in our lives, not to mention pointing out our need to make peace with something we’ll inevitably live with, is so important. I say this as a recovering perfectionist, something I suspect many book bloggers are also familiar with. When I began school, I refused to use an eraser; if my teacher pointed out a mistake I’d made, I’d just write on top of the previous one. Somehow, my four-year-old mind had decided that erasing something was shameful, an admission of wrongness that didn’t fit in with my view of myself. I’ve come a long way since then (amazing what a chronic illness will make you deal with), and Being Wrong not only confirmed my new attitude but helped deepen it. I highly recommend this book, not only because it’s so interesting, but also because I think it could truly help people. In fact, if I ever get to be a teacher, I’d definitely try to incorporate some of Schulz’s wisdom into my classroom!

Suggested Companion Reads

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2012 6:56 am

    OMG–this sounds so good! Must have. Must.

  2. March 5, 2012 9:34 am

    I love that you called yourself a recovering perfectionist. I definitely fit that definition as well, although admittedly I am not as much on the recovering end as you seem to be. ;) My career is such that I am surrounded by very talented, smart people every day (and competing against many of them) and I constantly have to be checking my own tendency to be a right-finder and drive to make zero mistakes. I not only want to read this book, I think I NEED to read this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Eva!!

  3. March 5, 2012 9:46 am

    Holy Cow! I just read – truly, like almost just-now in time- a ref to Gilgamesh!!! :)

    I was going to type, “You had me at soul-touching.” and then end with a quote:
    “We fail forward to success.”

    off to go tbr this book. Maybe I will choose it for our next book club, I think we are ready for some nonfic.

  4. March 5, 2012 12:38 pm

    I don’t think it’s a general post at all—I love the second blurb. I have a weird relationship with my past mistakes (such as that time period known as “middle school”), so to have this as a different way of looking at my mistakes is oddly uplifting. I appreciate that.

  5. March 5, 2012 1:37 pm


    The method I used to use for tutoring reading improvement heavily depended on celebrating “getting it wrong” because it was impossible to improve without doing so. It radically changed the way I viewed life and I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile as a I think I will!

  6. March 5, 2012 1:45 pm

    Ooh, this cover looks so much like a Sherman Alexie cover! But totally different subject matter. It sounds fabulous – thanks for bringing it to my attention. As someone who often makes mistakes, I think it would be important reading for me!

  7. March 5, 2012 2:38 pm

    I’m definitely a recovering perfectionist as well. I’d love to read this one.

  8. March 5, 2012 7:00 pm

    Sounds good! Not in the sense that I am in any way being successful at recovering from past perfectionism, but just that I like reading about people being good at stuff I’m not awesome at, such as accepting that sometimes you have to be wrong. I dislike being wrong but not nearly as much as I love love love love love love love being RIGHT. Being right makes me feel so amazing.

  9. March 6, 2012 3:35 am

    I’m so pleased you loved this – I own a copy of it, bought when it first came out because I thought it sounded so good, but not yet cracked open. Your review has brought it back to my mind and definitely bumped it up the list!

  10. March 6, 2012 5:24 am

    Can I also recommend ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)’ if you’re interested in more on being wrong. That is less ‘hurray wrongness increases our ability to deal’ and more about the addressing society’s current inability to deal with mistakes proportionately/the ways we justify behaviour we probably shouldn’t.

  11. March 6, 2012 1:56 pm

    This sounds fascinating. I can’t help but agree that yes, error really is good for us isn’t it? I am adding this to my list.

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