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Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard about a Kardashian, or a Beverly Hills housewife, or from a Facebook "friend"?

Right. Exactly.

Now ask yourself this: When was the last time you passed an hour in stillness, without the distraction of technology? When was the last time you felt able to drift into your Zen-like zone of productivity at work, without interruption? When was the last time you felt comfortable saying to somebody, "No thanks, you go on without me. I'd rather have a little quiet time alone."

Fact is, we all live in a difficult historical moment for those who prefer to turn inward rather than outward, for those who think without necessarily speaking, for those who like to spend time inside their own heads.

The zeitgeist does not much favor the introverts among us.

Which is why Susan Cain's excellent new book on introversion -- and the startling power of quiet, even in 2012 America -- is such a well-timed, welcome read.

If you're the slightest bit introverted at all -- or even just interested in how the quieter side of our collective culture is faring -- this volume will go down like a milkshake on a sultry August afternoon.

Cain, a former corporate attorney who does freelance writing, presents a compelling argument in this book that introversion is not only relatively unappreciated in our culture, it's positively misunderstood.

That seems like a modern, Twitter-driven phenomenon. But, Cain writes, the roots of that change actually stretch back to the shift in the American economy to a business-centered, not agriculture-focused, system.

That change, coming at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, drove a parallel metamorphosis in the concept of the collective culture's ideal citizen. Men were now supposed to be personality-filled salesmen, full of energy and brash effectiveness; women were supposed to possess a mysterious "fascination," charm or similar charisma. Anybody who wasn't exhibiting those qualities -- or actively pursuing them -- was falling down on the job, Cain shows, using advertisements and books from the period to bolster her case.

In a chapter that delves into the rise of Dale Carnegie, she writes:

"Carnegie's journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children. America has shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality -- and opened up a Pandora's Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover."

Cain, a graduate of Harvard Law, knows whereof she writes. She held down a pressure-filled job in a law firm for seven years. (An amusing, telling anecdote from those days opens the book.) In that career, she quickly learned how the business world values extroversion and stridency over quiet and thoughtfulness. Her experiences led her to the idea for the present book.

A deft and fluid writer, Cain attacks her subject matter almost as a lengthy newspaper or magazine piece, weaving technical research on personality types and sociological studies into a story line filled with pithy anecdotes, memorable scenes and off-beat characters. She offers mini-profiles of Gandhi and Steve Wozniak alongside those of Dale Carnegie and Warren Buffett.

A particularly funny chapter in the book includes Cain's tale of her personal experience at a Tony Robbins seminar.

And if you feel a bit confused over whether you are truly an introvert or not, you're not alone.

Because modern American culture places such a premium on exposure and extroversion, Cain notes, often people who would prefer to act as introverts become socially adept personalities, even adopting extroverted public personas, to get along better in the worlds they inhabit. When left alone, Cain writes, these people often revert into being the quiet types they truly are.

So for those you know -- including, perhaps, yourself -- who switch off "Real Housewives of Anywhere" in order to focus on their books or music, or just their thoughts?

This might be just the ticket to a broadening, comforting read.

It was for this reader.

Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of the News Book Club.

> NONFICTION

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

By Susan Cain

Crown

$26, 333 pages