- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (October 11, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385348398
- ISBN-13: 978-0385348393
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #35,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing Paperback – October 11, 2016
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"Holmes... debuts with a provocative analysis of the roots of uncertainty... The author's bright anecdotes and wide-ranging research stories are certain to please many readers."
"This isn't really about 'nonsense,' as in silliness, but about ambiguity—when it's helpful, when it's not; and how people react to it for good or ill... The many fans of the work of Malcolm Gladwell... will enjoy this readable and thought-provoking work."
—Library Journal (starred)
"By clearly staking out his thesis and exploring the topic with a dash of mischief, Holmes convincingly demonstrates that stressful situations can cause us to cling more steadfastly to our beliefs and discard unwelcome information, but he also offers a primer on how to combat these natural tendencies. While life is full of nonsense, managing our response to uncertainty makes all the sense in the world."
"An extremely useful primer for anyone who wants to better understand the complicated ways ambiguity affects human decision-making."
—New York Magazine
"Holmes is a fine writer and a clear thinker who leads us through the uses of confusion in art, business, medicine, engineering, police work and family life... If we want people to be prepared for the work of life and of living together, we should encourage lessons in the art of skepticism."
"If you're hard-wired to know and want to get more comfortable not knowing, this book will guide you down that long, dark hall."
“Uncomfortable with ambiguity? Maybe you shouldn’t be. In this energetic, tale-filled, fascinating tour of a broad horizon, Jamie Holmes shows that people often prosper when and because they are uncertain. A persuasive argument, but one thing is clear: You’ll learn a lot from this book.”
—Cass R. Sunstein, professor, Harvard University, and coauthor of Nudge
“Jamie Holmes has written a refreshing, lively book sparkling with insights and entertaining stories that illustrate how the mind deals with ambiguity. And he makes the case well that how we manage ambiguity both as individuals and as a species is critical to our future success.”
—Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“How do we make sense of the nonsensical? Extract meaning from endless ambiguity? In Nonsense, Jamie Holmes takes us on an engrossing journey into the mind’s ability to process the murky world around us. From women’s hemlines to Nazi spies, Henri Matisse to Anton Chekhov, Holmes is an entertaining guide into the vagaries of our comprehension of reality—and the power we can derive from nonsense, if only we give it a chance.”
—Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
“A book of astonishing stories and deep insights into how people deal with ambiguity, a subject that has troubled human beings forever, and never mattered more than it does now.”
—Peter Beinart, associate professor, CUNY, columnist for The Atlantic and Haaretz
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Jamie Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former Research Coordinator at Harvard University in the Department of Economics. He holds an M.I.A. from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Daily Beast.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Top customer reviews
Ultimately, Holmes offers some wise cautions against rushing headlong into decision. For instance:
"When making a decision, make a habit of consciously considering your stress level at the time. Are you feeling rushed? Are you tired? Are you having personal problems? Formalize reminders of how different kinds of anxiety affect your decisions and the consequences of those judgments" (80).
Certainly this is good advise, but it doesn't warrant an entire book. An article would suffice.
Those who don't or won't master that ambiguity challenge are more likely to "jump to conclusions", "deny contradictions", be mentally rigid, be prejudice and "revert to stereotypes", assert control elsewhere when losing control somewhere, be less creative, be more confident about an erroneous course of action, and be trusting of those who don't deserve trust and not trusting of those who do. There are also three things that tend to make individuals less likely to successfully deal with uncertainty and, thus, need a quick closure--fatigue, urgency and stress. States Mr. Holmes: "We have to reduce the messy world to manage it. But resolving something--fitting it into a metal box--also means that you stop scrutinizing it. Recognition means closure, and it marks the end of thinking, looking, and listening."
Embracing uncertainty, on the other hand, helps creativity and invention, deepens empathy, improves your "odds of making rational decisions", makes you less likely to fixate or clutch to "one aspect of a complex and shifting reality", and opens you to outside influences and traveling . . . which in turn feeds creativity and invention. As the author quoted Jerome Bruner: Creativity often results "when the ambiguity wins". Even mind traveling in books can be a big help, according to Mr. Holmes. He says: "And it's why reading fiction--which puts us in other people's shoes--can both lower our need for closure and make us more empathetic." (Interestingly, in novels, I prefer stories with closures, but I don't feel the same way about short stories.)
On page 87 of Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing is a "closure test" that the reader can take. But don't imagine this book is a self-help one, because it's not. It's more a book for those who like to think. The author provides many interesting stories, too, to help the reader visualize both successful and unsuccessful attempts to deal with ambiguity. Those stories include ones on: A doomsday group in the 1950s; the incredible increase in marriages after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco; the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff; the 1993 Waco standoff; the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and the fallacy of more and more medical testing because "the culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty".
In addition, there are stories about: The use of brain scans in criminal cases; the failure of the midi-skirt to replace the mini-skirt in the early 1970s; how ambiguity aversion leads to higher insurance premiums; Toyota; the Zara fashion store in New York; Alexander Graham Bell; the Hand To Hand school in Jerusalem; bilinguals; Anton Chekhov; puzzles ("The act of puzzling is a protest against the mind's reduction of ambiguity."); and how in the business world "strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure". (While reading that part of the book, I thought it was a shame Mr. Holmes did not look at Paul Reichmann and the Canary Wharf project--The Reichmanns: Family, Faith, Fortune, and the Empire of Olympia & York. In fact, Paul Reichmann's entire career as a builder would have been most interesting to explore in this book; since it is believed that the reason he took on so many projects with so many uncertainties was because, for him, there were no uncertainties where his religious beliefs were concerned.)
When I reached the epilogue of the book, I was surprised. One, because there were so many pages left. It turns out the book has approximately 75 pages of notes. Two, because it didn't feel like the book was concluding. But I guess that is appropriate for a book that is proposing it is not good to constantly seek certainties and closures. Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing actually reminds me in some ways of Kevin Ashton's How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery. Both books were about creativity, both books made me think quite a bit, and both books used up a lot of my supplies in my Post-it Study Kit with Tabs, Flags, Arrow Flags, Note Tabs, Grid Notes, Full Adhesive Notes, Label Pads, and Flag + Highlighter. ( Kevin Ashton, though, sounded more like Thomas Edison, from Mr. Holmes' description, than Alexander Graham Bell. :) I also felt the great need to quote both authors in the reviews of their books. Hence, let me end this review with two quotes that I liked from Jamie Holmes. One: "The heroes of this book are all protesters, and they are protesting the premature destruction of the world's mystery." Two: "Owning our own uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive."
Lessons not only or art, empathy, change, cognitive psychology & I would even venture to say that this book is philosophical. I know that I will be a better person for reading Nonsense and Jamie Holmes hit a home run with this. Highly recommended.