Anecdotes vs. Principles

By Deane Barker tags: books

I’m reading The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, which is the history of espionage around the world. It’s a magisterial work – some 800 pages.

I’m struggling with it, and here’s why: it’s basically a collection of episodes and anecdotes. Each chapter is about some country or intelligence service in some period of time, and it’s just one story after another. “Someone Did This” and then “Someone Else Did That,” etc.

Now, in some senses, this is what history is all about. One could say, “History is just a series of anecdotes!”

But it’s not. History is that, plus the larger lessons and principles we learn from them. What good are anecdotes unless we learn a bigger truth?

I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell, who’s the “master of the anecdote.” I’ve said before that Gladwell just takes a bundle of anecdotes and tries to wrap them in some larger framework just so he can tell stories. Someone once called him “brain candy.”

But whenever I’m done with a Gladwell book, I put it down and think the same thing: that was interesting, but am I any smarter than when I started it?

The same is true of The Secret World. What the book is missing is an introduction with some larger principles – like, “In the following 800 pages, these are the larger themes and principles we’re going to draw out of 5,000 anecdotes.” I feel like the reader has to be “primed” for this, both from a motivational perspective (“Wow, this is gonna be interesting!”) and so they can know what matters and what does (“Yes, this is clearly an example of X!”).

The author should even make explicit callbacks to the principles and themes they laid out, so the reader knows where to place the information and is re-assured that the author is building to some point or purpose. The reader needs to know they’re still “on the roadmap.”

I read The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons a couple months back. Simmons is a master (abuser?) of the anecdote, but he opened the book with a long discussion about what he calls “The Secret,” which was that basketball is a team game, and teams that work together are better than teams with a single superstar. Simmons kept providing examples of this foundational principle, and kept calling back to it again and again over 700 pages. Consequently, this is a thing I will remember from this book forever.

I’m reminded of the psychological principle of “gestalt”:

Something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts

The gestalt of a thing are made up of bits and pieces of anecdotes and stories. They’re the larger umbrella of understanding and wisdom that spreads over and rises out of specific examples. You need to call these out in advance so that a reader can watch for them or, at a minimum, be jarred out of routine when they encounter them.

As for The Secret World, I’m struggling with motivation. Every time I pick up the book (no mean feat – it weighs more than a few pounds), I have a sense of looming dread, since I have no idea where I’m going, and am struggling to figure out how I’m going to be a better person when I get there.

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