“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

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freak“After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions.”

Once I’m done in the fiction section of a bookshop (which can take upwards of several hours), I do often go and look in the popular science section. I’ve even taken a shine to popular psychology and popular philosophy once in a while. But popular economics? That was one that really came out of nowhere. I hear “economics” and I think “global banking crisis”, recall that at school it always seemed like the nerdier and harder big brother of Business Studies, and generally want nothing to do with it.

But a few years ago I read Freakonomics and loved it. It changes the way you see the world and gives explanations for things that you’ve never thought about before. It established why most drug dealers still live with their parents, how much your name can affect how well you do in life, and why the legalisation of abortion in the USA made the crime rate drop. With that last one in particular, you may be wondering not only how such a link exists but why the question was even asked. It all just suggests that maybe we’re not getting the answers we want because we’re not asking the right questions.

Think Like A Freak is a guide for people who want to be able to think in this same way and make the right decisions by asking the right things. Levitt and Dubner cover such topics as how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded, why quitting isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, why we believe things that are patently untrue, and which incentives work best.

Along the way they talk about Van Halen’s rider and why it famously specified no brown M&Ms in the dressing room, how one man doubled the record for the most hot dogs eaten in twelve minutes, what possessed a man to try and give himself ulcers, how the Chinese ping pong team brokered peace between China and America, what happened when the authors met David Cameron, and why people find it impossible to say “I don’t know”.

It’s a quick read and will give you plenty to think about, but short of quoting from it, there’s little I can say in a review. Granted, Freakonomics is better because there are a lot more stories there and this is more the theory of how it all works, but nonetheless it’s still very interesting and gives you a new way of looking at problems. And if nothing else, you’ll know how to eat hot dogs really quickly by the time you’ve finished it.


“Lexicon” by Max Barry (2013)


Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

“He’s coming around.”

I’ve always considered myself rather persuasive, which is lucky because in my jobs both as a salesman and a writer, that’s a pretty essential quality to have. I’m not saying I could make someone rob a bank, but I can make them buy something they didn’t know they needed. However, when it comes to persuasion, the characters in Lexicon are something else.

The story opens with Wil Parke being kidnapped from an airport in Portland, and the first chapter explodes by with murder, destruction, escape, capture and persuasion in good measure. The men who have taken him want him for something, but Wil has absolutely no idea what it is, but it soon becomes clear that without Wil in tow, the men are failing their job and there is a danger on the way.

The story then changes and focuses on Emily Ruff, a down-and-out homeless teenager who has nothing but the bag on her back and a knack for tricking tourists into playing cards with her and taking all their money. She finds herself approached by a man in a cheap suit who claims that he can offer her an outstanding future of great promise. There exists a school, known just as the Academy, that will train her to better use her powers of persuasion. It turns out, you see, that there are a finite number of personalities available to people and when you can work out someone’s segment, you can speak a few select words and gain complete control over them.

Wil’s story continues as he is held captive by his kidnapper, Eliot, and Wil tries to make sense of the situation around him. Meanwhile Emily begins studying at the Academy and honing her skills. But there is more to it than this. Somewhere in Australia there is a town called Broken Hill, and there is a word there that should never have got out. It kills anyone who sees it, and someone needs to go and get it out of there and take it somewhere safe before it can do any further damage.

In this excellent and very fast-paced thriller, linguistics and psychology tie themselves together to show that anyone is capable of being controlled if you just know what you’re doing. It expounds many ideas about how this is going on in our world as it is, most obvious with things such as the Internet, which tailors its adverts, links and stories to show you what you want to see and buries the rest. You may think you have free will, but how many of your decisions are entirely your own?

The novel is telling one story, but jumps around at different points along the way. It quickly becomes apparent that the two main stories, those of Wil and Emily, are not happening at the same time, but it takes a while to work out which one comes first and what the consequences of that are. One of the twists I got a long time before it was revealed, but one remained hidden from me until I slapped my forehead and realised I’d been an absolute dunce.

I like a book that sets the world up as the one we know and then just tweaks a single detail, such as this ability to fully control people simply because of the right words. It’s long been accepted that words have power, any reader and writer worth their salt knows that, but this turns it up to eleven and shows what we might just be capable of. There are a lot of references to the Tower of Babel and general discussions on evolution of language and why exactly it’s so powerful. My favourite touch is that all the characters with these persuasive abilities are known as “poets” and each one adopts the name of a famous writer, meaning we get characters called Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood, among others.

Alright, so the ending didn’t quite stack up the way I’d hoped and a couple of things remain unexplained, but a lot of thought has gone into this world and, frankly, I can’t think how I would have ended it, or how indeed I expected it to end. It’s a terrifying book in some ways because we’re all so convinced that we’re acting out our own desires, and we think we project a certain version of ourselves to the world, but there’s no way we can really know if any of it is our own decision.

Were I a poet, I would be able to persuade you to read this book with just a few words, but I’m not, so hopefully this review will have done enough.