Susan Cain’s Reading List for People who Draw Energy from Discussing Ideas

Susain Cain on best ideas

In the reader's guide section for Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking Susan Cain summarizes the thesis of the book. She says:

At least one third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society—from Van Gogh's sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

The book is Cain's call for a Quiet Revolution.

Included in the guide are also examples of introverts in literature, from Ferdinand the Bull who prefers to sit quietly under a tree in the classic children's book to the not easy to draw out Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, to the consummate sensitive Ugly Duckling, the famous tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

One book stands out and that is Gandhi: An Autobiography in which one of the world's great transformative leaders explains how his shy and quiet nature helped him lead a nation.

More interesting titles for introverts:

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

This book illuminates the kind of life we should all be living. Csikszentmihalyi argues that one of the highest states of being is the state of flow — when you’re totally engaged in an activity, riding the narrow channel between boredom and anxiety. I talk about this book a lot, and try to live by it even more.

Sailing Alone Around the Room

(Or really any of Billy Collins’ poetry collections.) Collins, who was once the US poet laureate, says he’s an extrovert, but if his poems are any indication, he’s a homebody like me. He writes about exciting things like looking up words in the encyclopedia and walking to town for a gallon of milk. He’s charming and insightful, and I love his work so much that when I went into labor with our first child, my husband ran back to our apartment to bring one of Collins’ books to the maternity ward. He thought I should have it while we were waiting for the baby to come. (One of the highlights of speaking at TED was getting to meet Collins, who also gave a talk, and telling him this story. He said it was a first.)

The Organization Man

If you have ever felt weird or out of step because you like to sit around and think, I can’t recommend these books enough. I read them while researching Quiet. I was trying to trace the history of what I call 'the extrovert ideal' — the Western bias for people who are alpha, assertive and gregarious — and devoured these books. (You’ll find them referenced in chapter one of Quiet.) They were both written in the middle of the 20th century, a time when Americans were trying to break the shackles of their conformist, Happy Days culture. So what do these books have to do with our life today? Everything. You’ll see that things haven’t changed as much as we think.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction.

This book throws light on many features of the American character. Its concern is not merely to portray the scorners of intellect in American life, but to say something about what the intellectual is, and can be, as a force in a democratic society.

“Tocqueville saw that the life of constant action and decision which was entailed byt the democratic and businesslike character of American Life put a premium upon rough and ready habits of mind, quick decision, and the prompt seizure of opportunities—and that all this activity was not propitious for deliberation, elaboration, or precision in thought.” [Richard Hofstadter]

Reminiscent of Cain's chapter that take us to a time when character was more important than personality in North American culture.


Have you ever felt like an outsider? This is an acutely observed look at life inside a New England boarding school, as told from a public school kid from Indiana. I picked up this book the minute I heard about it. Like the Prep protagonist, I am not from a preppy background. But I went to Princeton in the 1980s, when it seemed that all the students were from elite private schools and possessed of a breathtaking savoir faire. I thought my mother had taught me decent table manners, but my classmates had an elegant way of holding their utensils that would forever elude me. They also pursued mysterious passions, like trying out for 'crew,' a sport I had never heard of before. I thought they were competing to make extra money washing dishes at the dining hall, and couldn't figure out why they needed the cash. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider in a culture that initially seemed more dazzling than the one you came from (and even if you haven’t!), this is a great read.

Passion for thought and attention to subtlety are both traits of introverts. The characters and circumstances described in these books exemplify what psychologist Gerald Matthews found about introverts. He says, they think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on tasks longer, work more accurately, and give up less easily.

“It's not that I'm so smart,” said Einstein. “It's that I stay with problems longer.”