2019, Books, Non-Fiction

Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life (2019) by Rory Sutherland

Reading this book, I can’t help but wonder “who is this for?” It’s like a Greatest Hits or Best of for evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics but filtered through the mind of someone with no attention span (or who strongly believes his readers don’t have one). It’s utterly bizarre and works only as a very slight introduction to numerous topics in these fields. I don’t get the acclaim and I can’t say I’d recommend it over numerous other books on these topics (many of which Sutherland references).

Sutherland writes like Kurt Vonnegut in the sense that his chapters rarely exceed a couple of pages – 5 or 6 pages is the outlier. The book feels like he dictated it to an assistant, or recorded it himself in little snippets, and then somebody tried to assemble them into a coherent narrative. Not only is the structure all over the place, but there are a few typographical errors. These errors only increase the feel that this book was rushed out.

This is a greatest hits of a bunch of contemporary and older research in modern scientific fields. Sutherland will spend a page or two on one discovery and move onto another. Sometimes he’ll bring it up again, referencing his earlier discussion. And sometimes he brings it up again and doesn’t reference the earlier discussion, which once again enforces the impression that this book was rushed to publication. I’ve read many of the books Sutherland has and I have a bunch more on my list of books to read. I’m not sure why Sutherland’s very brief discussion of these topics is better for me, or anyone else, than reading those books. It’s faster, I guess. But lots is missing.

To make matters worse, Sutherland comes up with his own terms for some of this stuff – it always struck me as the height of arrogance to decide your name for something is better than anyone else’s. (Well, it’s one thing to maintain that in private. It’s another thing to maintain it in a book.)

I hate traditional economics as much as Sutherland does, but I’m not sure I agree that the world has been seized by a group of technocrats, this so-called “arithmocracy”. These people no doubt exist, but have they seized control of the world? I’m find this a very broad claim and he provides only his gut feelings in defense of it. I should be one of the easiest people to convince of this claim and yet I’m not.

Sutherland’s humour is very much that of an old British ad executive: it’s somewhat un PC and it likely works much better in person than it does on the page. I chuckled a couple of times but more often I was aware he was trying to make me laugh and not succeeding. Does it make this stuff more accessible? Sure, it does. Many of the books and articles Sutherland is referencing are humourless. But these jokes still don’t make me think this book is a better alternative to those books.

I don’t know about the rest of the acclaim, but the acclaim on my copy is conspicuously from people Sutherland references in the book (and appears to know personally). Yes, I know that’s how the publishing industry works but here it feels very obvious. And I have a hard time believing that people who don’t know him and like him, and who have already read many of the books Sutherland has read, will find this anywhere near as captivating.

All of that being said, there is stuff in here I’m unfamiliar with, and those things did indeed provoke me to think. When I wasn’t getting deja vu thinking “Yes, I’ve read that too, Rory” I did find insights. It’s not like I didn’t learn anything. But it was always surface level – a few hundred words on this thing, a few hundred words on that.

It’s a very easy read meaning that, if you are intimidated by evolutionary psychology or behavioural economics books (and you shouldn’t be!, at least not by the books written for popular audiences) then this summary way work for you. Or if you’re a very busy executive who can only read one 300 page book a year – I’m only half joking – it’s going to be valuable to you. But if you want to fully understand the phenomena he’s writing about, and you want to actually understand the research behind all this “alchemy”, you’ll have to go somewhere else, to the sources for this book. So why read this unless you have no time to read anything else?

6/10 because there’s plenty of insight here, even if it’s superficial. And if you haven’t read these books, you will learn stuff.

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