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Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

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.

  1. Good review – I intend to pick this up at some point when I have less on the reading pile. My copy of Ghost Map has been read by many people in the hospital I work at, and many now have their own copies.

    I’ve never managed to get far with Tipping Point so never picked up any other Gladwell.

  2. Hey Peter! Being an avid reader of your blog, I chose blogs as my topic for a speech I am doing. As you are the father of the term, I would love if you could answer a few questions for me. Email me if you can! Thanks.

  3. Hey Peter,
    Good reflections on the innovation term.
    When the man who named “blog” gives a a review of a book, its a must have.
    Sincerely Sven

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