Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Powers of Two has a fascinating premise and a wide, interdisciplinary reach -- but in the end, I'm not convinced that it's any more than a museum collection of good examples.

The fascinating premise is that the primary unit of human creativity is not the Great Man or the Great Society, but what I'll call the "Great Dyad" of a pair of people relating. One of the great joys of the book is seeing the huge range of examples that Shenk gives to support his hypothesis. The obvious ones include the ones double-billed from the beginning: Lennon and McCartney, Stone and Parker (South Park), Tolkien and Lewis, the Wright brothers, and the Coen brothers. Shenk extends his examples to not-so-obvious pairs: Van Gogh, Wordsworth, and even Tiger Woods had hidden partners that he argues makes them the more obvious members of what is really a creative pair.

As an example of how things can work and how things did work, especially with the Beatles, this book is worth a read (it may contain the best account that I have read of why they broke up ). I'm not so convinced that it's how things MUST work. Shenk dilutes his hypothesis by mentioning how talking with yourself constitutes a dyad, and that each dyad is surrounded by a network of dyads at higher levels, where, for example, Stone and Parker act as one half of a pair with their lawyer, etc. All true, but not easily summable as a book title.

I think that this points to a deeper truth, that reality is relational, and Martin Buber's I and Thou came to mind. But Buber was only referenced briefly in the final section and very few of the vast resources that theology provides for this kind of deep thinking make an appearance in this book. The concept of the Trinity is unmentioned. In the end, it's too practical and too specific, where theology would make it more practical.

I don't want to nitpick on whether the dyad is the basic unit of creativity, which seems a moot point. Rather, I want to know if reality is ultimately relational and subjective rather than rational and objective. But this gets into the area of philosophy and theology, and a how-things-work book like this is not interested in getting into the deep end of things. It may be a failure of the genre.

So I find this stimulating enough, but more like a sugar rush from chewing gum than like a deeply satisfying intellectual meal. Still, it's clever enough, expansive enough, and in the end, it's onto something. This would form a good basis for further discussion. Wonder if my book group would be interested?

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