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Book Review: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson
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Book Review: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson

It’s an unfortunate truth that you just can’t read everything you want to or ought to. For many of us with book-loving friends who pay attention to book-loving media, simply keeping up with recommendations is by itself impossible. This is one reason our book reviews tend to be favorable: by the time we turn the first page, the books we read have survived multiple filters by the press, our friends, and the best-seller lists. Some titles are automatic reads by favorite writers (regular readers may have noticed that we’ll review anything by Michael Lewis or Adam Grant, for example), who themselves are a kind of super-specific filter.

A well-chosen filter can even steer a discerning reader toward the unfamiliar. In searching for a new book to review this month, we hoped for something unexpected and hopefully revelatory. The Amazon “Best of the Year So Far” list seemed a good place to begin. We ticked through the list quickly: “Already read that; already read that; alread read that too. Aha. What’s this?”

It was Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction (Penguin, 2017), and it’s the best non-fiction book we’ve read all year. Conveniently, our discovery of it is a good illustration of the book’s primary thesis. In searching for something new, we stumbled on a familiar topic, the science of popularity (this is our third or fourth review of a book related to this subject), from an unfamiliar source, the writer Derek Thompson. Add its mention by Amazon, a distributor with some information about what we like, and it seems bound to have found its way to us eventually.

Thompson seeks to answer two questions about hits:

  • 1. What is the secret to making products that people like -- in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landcape of culture?
  • 2. Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

The book may fall slightly short on the science, but the way it expounds on its scholarly foundation is fascinating and delightfully well-written. We have praised books in the past for boiling science down to its essence in accessible ways for quick reading and easy discussion, and while Thompson’s writing is certainly not alienating, his attention to phrasing and the rhythm of language makes his book an immensely pleasurable read on an aesthetic level, something we’re not used to experiencing in such books aimed at mainstream audiences.

Thompson is an editor for the Atlantic Monthly, and you can see the association. Because the language is slightly more literate than many books sharing the same bookshelf space, it’s not as quick a read. This is not a book to be digested entire chapters at at time during the lunch hour, and not everyone in your office will find it a pleasuable read, a likelihood exacerbated by the writer’s propensity for taking his time through anecdotal support for his argument. Thompson goes far back in his example of the popularity of Monet and Renoir, for instance, above less well-known Impressionist artists of their time. He takes deep, interesting dives into widely divergent phenomena (he also addresses Game of Thrones and Brahms’s Lullaby) and is in no hurry to give the reader three bullets and a quote. Like some of the best articles in the Atlantic, it shades in the interesting detail and offers context and perspective. Some readers will be turned off by what they’ll consider too much background and not enough getting to the point. Negative reviews may call such background “fluff.” We call it substance.

“Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom,” writes Thompson in explaining the availability of content as part of the formula of popularity. Somehow, Hit Makers managed to wander the kingdom without crossing our path, but it found us eventually on one of the kingdom’s busiest highways: Amazon. Now we’re distributing it to you, too. Read this book!

 

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Book Review: Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson - Executive Leadership Articles

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