We live in a world of conformity; humor is a variation on the same accepted memes, accepted body types are few, and sometimes it’s difficult to retain friends and stay popular if you don’t all believe the same thing. Sometimes it’s even dangerous to be different and stand out from the mass. It’s the outsiders, though, who have a tendency to see what’s really going on, to persevere and to succeed, by, well, being different. The three new books in this week’s book club are all about the pleasures of being and accepting yourself. They show us why it’s not just okay to be weird but even awesome.
1. The F Word by Liza Palmer ($16): Olivia Morten’s world (a high-powered PR career in LA) is all about image and conformity, where revealing one’s true self or imperfections is seen as a serious misstep. From this carefully controlled veneer, Olivia appears flawless, with her beautiful figure, high salary, and equally perfect husband (a neurosurgeon). However, if you’re guessing that perfection’s an illusion and there’s something more human underneath, well, five points to Gryffindor (or the house of your choosing). Inside, with shades of Monica Geller, Olivia’s never really gotten over “Fat Me,” her lonely, weird, and overweight high school self.
Olivia’s pretty good at ostracizing her ostracized past, and it looks like she might fit in forever, until Ben Dunn, a former tormentor from high school, accidentally walks back into her life. “My legs feel heavy. I run my hand down the side of my body. Pinch the fat just under my bra. I close my eyes and am immediately bombarded with an almost seizure-inducing fireworks show of my past. Whole swaths of time I’d long had buried, now bursting out.”
Now, she has to confront and accept the person she always was, while accepting that change is possible, but not always necessary. Does she want to continue always being mentally and physically hungry, or does she want to find peace? “There’s the truth and then there’s the lie that people want to believe,” Palmer writes. What happens when Olivia stops believing the lies about herself?
2. Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently by Beau Lotto ($17): Being able to look at problems and ideas from another angle is incredibly valuable. What hundreds of people might overlook is the “deviant’s” clue to discover. Beau Lotto, a professor of neuroscience at the University of London and New York University, founder of the Lab of Misfits and well-known on the TED talk circuit, takes a look at the possibly vast gap between reality and perception, the idea that reality itself is more fungible than we might imagine, and the concept that everyone can embrace creativity and difference if we just change the way we look at things.
Lotto uses descriptions of real-world examples, which he calls “experiment as experience… even theater,” as well as optical illusions, to show us that our brains have evolved to see things that aren’t accurate depictions of reality. That’s okay, though — if we recognize this, we can draw creative power from it, even “genius.” This isn’t a new idea (if you took Philosophy 101 or hung out with people who did, you’ve probably had Plato’s Allegory of the Cave drilled into your skull), but it’s rarely been explained so entertainingly, with neuroscience to back it up (something Plato didn’t have yet).
“Our five senses are like a keyboard to a computer,” Lotto writes; “they provide the means for information from the world to get in, but they have very little to do with what is then experienced in perception. They are in essence just mechanical media, and so play only a limited role in what we perceive. In fact, in terms of the sheer number of neural connections, just 10 percent of the information our brains use to see comes from our eyes. The rest comes from other parts of our brains, and this other 90 percent is in large part what this book is about.” Lotto’s book is a celebration of difference, and a call to action in what that could mean for our interactions with each other, our educational system… and even our self-perception.
3. Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro ($27): If you’ve read this far and are a real human person who’s interacted with other humans, you’ve probably experienced the uncomfortable phenomenon we all know as “awkwardness.” Psychologist Ty Tashiro grew up a self-admitted “awkward person.” He had a harder time with social interaction than many, often preferring a laser-like focus and routine than dealing with small talk and nonverbal behavior: “a near-panicked feeling that had once pervaded my private deliberations about how I could navigate a social world that seemed like it moved too fast for me to decipher its secrets.”
This wasn’t something he grew out of, but something he learned to work with and against, figuring out cues by training and advice and learning both how to interact with others while continuing to fundamentally be who he was. Tashiro’s book details his recent search for answers on both a personal and social science level, looking for details to provide “a coherent, evidence based set of answers” to why the awkward feel the way they do: “why some people experience awkward moments not as an exception to the rule, but as a way of life.”
Obviously, awkwardness is pervasive, but it’s also a matter of degree, from the occasional party foul to a genuine difficulty connecting with other people at all. So, how do you stand out and embrace difference while remaining functional? Tashiro shows that you can understand awkwardness and still reach out to others and participate in the social ecology. He also shows us how that awkwardness can lead to great ambition and success, particularly once we understand how “awkward people see the world differently from non-awkward people.” The next time you’re standing at a party wishing you could be anywhere else, instead of flipping to Tumblr to stare at something more interesting, maybe use your phone to pick up a copy of this book instead. It could help to channel that focus and “intense clarity” into something wonderful.
What books stand out from the crowd? Tag us in your next “different” read @BritandCo.
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