First off, credit where credit is due: Steven Johnson is a renaissance man. I thought the name looked familiar, and realized that he’s the author of The Ghost Map – the amazing book about contact tracing leading to the discovery of the nature of Cholera – which I thoroughly enjoyed and wouldn’t have thought was by the same author given the difference in subject matter. He’s also the author of Where Good Ideas Come From, which I haven’t read but definitely seems a bit closer to this one, perhaps executed a bit more deftly.
And the subject matter of this book is definitely entertaining and up my alley. The subtitle tells it best: “how we make the decisions that matter the most.” I just think that Johnson didn’t write that book so much as he told a lot of entertaining stories that he hoped would add up to a larger point about decision making.
A LOT of the book is taken up by the planning and “premortem” of the raid that took out Osama bin Laden and that probably didn’t help my assessment. I’m not the hugest fan of modern military stories (nothing wrong with them, just not my cup of tea), so that may be contributory. I won’t lie, I’m much more willing to forgive a book’s flaws if I enjoy the stories it’s telling me, so if this had been about comic books or cooking I might have had an extra star for it. And the other anecdotes Johnson uses to illustrate his point are entertaining enough, but can’t get out of the bin Laden raid’s shadow.
That said, it’s not bad, just (oh the irony) a bit out of focus. Because if you’re farsighted, you don’t necessarily see any better. It’s just whether the forest or the trees are sharper.