These are the books I have read in roughly the last week:
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan
The Sibling Effect by Jeffery Kluger
Having read them so closely together, I will pit them against one another in this meta-review. These books don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, though at times they do overlap. I often find that no matter what I read, if I read them in a short span of time I can’t help to notice connections between them. The Outliers book was a grounding factor in explaining not only the success of an individual like Tina Fey, but also companies such as Nintendo. The Sibling Effect, which discusses how birth order and your siblings help shape your identity, is another unifying factor across the different books and the viewpoints of the people that wrote them.
Simply stated, siblings are important. There were some fascinating facts, but overall it talked more about what cannot be said objectively since there are so many subjective experiences in any individuals life, and among any group of siblings. Any section that particularly applies to the reader’s own life experience is understandably more interesting than those that don’t, Kluger has a family history that covers most of the bases. His passion for the topic is widely founded in his own experiences, but the field of research on sibling relationships is strangely sparse and only recently gaining more attention. In any case, its fun to read and hypothesize about yourself and those you know, and how they fit into their familial roles. These family roles are the making of us, and can explain the choices we make. In Tina Fey’s case, her identity as the youngest, much cherished youngest child resulted in an outpouring of love and support that gave her the foundation of confidence so crucial to her success.
Bossypants was exactly what I expected, and yet, it made me realize what it wasn’t. What I expected was a humorous story about a humor professional. At times it was very personally detailed, but that also highlighted an absence of that same intimacy near the end of the book. Of course, that is a writer’s prerogative, especially when writing their own autobiography. Maybe there is not yet enough perspective distance for her to comment on her more recent life in the way that she comments on her adolescence, or maybe her adult life is public enough that she feels she does not have to comment. In any case, one thing that seemed very intriguing in a perhaps unintentional way is how she spoke of her time impersonating Sarah Palin on SNL after she had left the show and started 30 Rock. In the most literal way that it could possibly happen, she had found her place. She earlier laments that she does not look like anyone else, and where other actresses could wear a wig and convincingly portray others, she had never been capable of doing so. This excluded her from certain opportunities, and seemed like a disadvantage when she was younger. As she portrayed Palin, it was that distinctiveness that eventually gave her an unparalleled advantage.
Distinctiveness leading to an unparalleled advantage is the basic premise of Outliers. Gladwell digs into stories of success to show that they are extraordinary, but also explainable. It’s not merely a mystical lottery of fate that allows people to achieve success: it is often a mix of coincidence, opportunity, and very hard work. Some find that work endlessly enjoyable, as with Bill Gates time spent programming as a young man, or a lawyer who takes cases no one wants, only to gain the experience that years later allows him to be at the head of the field later. (The hard work and experience needed, as a side note, happens to average ten thousand hours. So, you know… plan accordingly) The responses to the opportunities presented is often what opens the pathways to success. In many cases, what could have been viewed as a disadvantage or an obstacle was turned into a unique advantage. This was true for Tina Fey, and it was true for Nintendo of America as well.
In Super Mario, we learn that the start of Nintendo of America was precarious to say the least. The wealthy owner of Nintendo wanted an America outlet during the booming arcade period. He shipped a bunch of arcade machines along with his daughter and son-in-law over to America, where the machines failed to sell. Instead of swallowing the loss, the son-in-law decided cheaply recycle the machines by swapping the motherboards with a new game. That game was created by an unlikely nonconformist by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto. The Donkey Kong game Miyamoto created ignited the success of not just Nintendo of America, but Nintendo at large and subsequently created their flagship personality, Mario. There are also critical missteps by Nintendo, such as their reluctance to adopt discs and pushing for online game features, but never considering online multi-player. Even in overwhelming success stories, there are still some overwhelming failures. These failures mesh into the identity of the success, and are an important part of the story.
It was the same failure among success that I did not suspect to find in Extra Lives. I think that any and every gamer could, from their own perspective, write this same book. That is not meant to lessen the book itself, but instead endorse its premise. Bissell mentions that games gave him and extra life during a hardship he faced, but does not reveal the full details until later in the book. I felt that the book itself slowed in pace right before this revelation, almost reluctant to tell the whole story. But, as he shows in his chronicles of other game makers and in his praise for their work, games are a complex, personal reflection of the people who make them and the people that play them. The games are a mirror for their success, their pride, their failures and their regrets.
Outliers was defiantly my favorite of the five. I expected The Sibling Effect to be similar and found myself somewhat disappointed. I did not expect Super Mario to be similar and it was: full of information and told in a engaging style. Bossypants was easily the most entertaining of all the books, but Extra Lives proved the most personal. I would recommend all of them.