The subtitle of Steven Johnson’s latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, suggests that Steven is looking for his own taste of that Gladwellian mystique, writing a book that has just enough business mojo to command those $25,000 – $50,000 speaking fees at corporate events.
(I refer to the author as Steven, instead of (Mr.) Johnson, because I know him. Apologies if it feels too familiar.)
I found Good Ideas to be a surprisingly curious book. I suppose I was expecting more on the “innovation” front, from a business and technology perspective, but what Steven delivers is strongly weighted on the “natural history” front, with descriptions of coral reef formation, neuronal processes, and other natural phenomena. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising — since Emergence, Steven has had a strong natural science bent, whether ecological, neurological (Mind Wide Open), or microbial (The Ghost Map).
Let me also say that I liked the book. It took a while to grow on me. It wasn’t clear where it was leading, and the collection of stories, and their relationships, felt like a jumble for a while.
But then I realized that the book was an exercise in it’s primary biological metaphor – the coral reef. Coral reefs are remarkably fecund environments, accreting over time in such a way to support a dazzling number of species. The accretion of stories in the book ends up mimicking that process of coral reef development — Steven gathers a bunch of narratives, some with strong connections to one another, others looser, and the reader is left to make sense of the juxtapositions on their own.
This is actually where I prefer Steven’s approach to that of Gladwell. Gladwell might be a better storyteller, but he’s a terrible theoretician — a Mack truck can be driven through the holes in his grand themes (Blink being the prime offender; it refutes itself almost immediately.) Steven doesn’t attempt to knit things too neatly — he presents them, as if in a wunderkammer, with more of a curatorial than authorial orientation.
Rereading my criticism of his prior work, The Invention of Air, I’m amused at how what I found to be flaws in that work turn out to be strengths in this one. In Air I criticized the aimlessness and lack of explicit direction, whereas in Ideas those serve the subject. I think it’s because Ideas is a book about ideas, which are nebulous, networked, and squishy things, whereas Air was ostensibly about a man and his work, which necessitates a focus that I found lacking.
Anyway, Ideas is among the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while. It’s the perfect book-club book, the kind of book you want your friends to read so you can talk about it with them.