Where Good Books Come From

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From will walk you through how the greatest thinkers form their ideas. In fact, his book explains in depth to you exactly what the subtitle says, “The Natural History of Innovation.” Johnson’s extensive experience of technological progress shows itself inside his chapters as he fully explains his main idea of the “slow hunch” by examining hunches like “a plot involving multiple radical Islamic fundamentalists” and how different ideas about how to identify these men are more successful than others (74). By using several other microcosms like that throughout his book Johnson incorporates his knowledge about how science has progressed in a way that is engaging and fast paced. Johnson’s goal is to show us how great ideas form, and where, like how “a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand (11). His writing is full of interesting facts such as this. As a nonfiction book, Johnson presents historical evidence in support of his analysis of how the many great ideas in science have formed. His writing is both informative and entertaining, chock full of behind the scenes looks about great scientists like Charles Darwin and how they came to the realization of their great ideas. Our society is pushed forward by great inventions like the printing press and by revolutionary ideas like the punnett square. Johnson breaks down the process of these discoveries and finds a system that identifies the keys to forming a great hunch. This system proves in fact, where good ideas come from.

The exploration of ideas begins with “Darwin’s Paradox”, Charles Darwin’s examination of the atoll reefs, and is further enriched when Johnson compares the complex intersections of live and dead organisms to urban life and the Internet. Clear comparisons between the physically familiar and abstract thoughts continue as Johnson compares the flow of ideas to relationships in a homogenous community. The abstract is brought closer to concrete events in “The Slow Hunch”, the beginning form of an idea that simply needs nurturing to grow into a full concept. By analyzing Ken Williams’ role in the 9/11 plot, and how his “slow hunch” of Osama Bin Laden’s students in flight school could have flourished if given the time of day, Johnson makes it clear that when a “hunch” has the ability to latch onto another, it can grow and spread into something bigger than the creators of either hunch could have done on his own.

Johnson also explains the significance of dreams on the development of ideas: “In this sense, Freud had it backward with his notion of dreamwork: the dream is not somehow unveiling a repressed truth. Instead it is exploring, trying to find new truths by experimenting with novel combinations of neurons.” (101-2) He reveals that luck, failure, and evolution affect the development of ideas as much as the nourishment of each “hunch”. “Error”, as Johnson names it, is one of the most prominent keys to successful ideas. Johnson quotes the British economist William Stanley Jevons’ statements on error in his book Principles of Science: “Fertility of imagination and abundance of guesses at truth are among the first requisites of discovery; but the erroneous guesses must be many times as numerous as those that prove well founded.” (137) Johnson explains that we need to fail multiple times in order to get to those great ideas.

Finally, Johnson examines the practicality of each idea based on its creator’s intentions and the functional use of them in society. He separates each idea into four qualifying adjectives: if it is intended to prosper in the market or not, and whether it is developed by the individual or by a network of people. Most importantly, Johnson stresses that it does not matter how or for what they are developed, as long as they are developed they will be good ideas.

This book is an excellent read, no matter who you are. Johnson uses examples from such a wide range of fields, and it truly makes Where Good Ideas Come From accessible to everyone. He mentions technological advances, biology and chemistry, music and writing. Furthermore, his book really does cover the history of innovation, starting with how the building blocks found in the primordial soup came together to create life, all the way up through contemporary examples of innovation such as YouTube and Apple products. It becomes really engaging, grabbing the reader’s attention because they don’t know what innovation Johnson is going to bring up next.

In addition, Where Good Ideas Come From is structured well--each concept builds on those mentioned in previous chapters, finally coming together in the end to present the reader with a full overview of everything that happens when someone has a good idea. Johnson also includes tables and diagrams from time to time, which illustrate a summary of his points in a clear way.

Where Good Ideas Come From is the sort of book everyone should read at least once, whether you’re a high school student, a freshman writing major, an engineering graduate student or something else entirely. It’s almost guaranteed that you will get something out of this book--maybe it won’t be a lightbulb or Eureka moment (Johnson points out that those are actually relatively uncommon), but maybe you’ll start thinking about the world a little differently. Maybe it’ll encourage you to broaden your field of study or pick up a hobby or two. Maybe you’ll remember to start writing down all those little snippets of ideas that work their way into your head from time to time. But whatever the end result is, reading Johnson’s book is absolutely a good idea. This book will simplify how “we are often better served by connecting ideas” instead of creating new ones (22).
Where Good Books Come From

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