Whistling Vivaldi

Woah baby it’s been a while. Rest assured my friends, while I’ve been away from writing about the books I’ve been reading as furiously as ever. So much so that my to-write-about stack is making quite the effort to grow bigger than the to-read stack. I used to believe that a commute to work would be a bit of a pain, but I gotta say I love my morning afternoon train time reading. I recently finished Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele after years of having it in my to read pile. I’m genuinely disappointed in myself for taking so long to read this book.

whistling vivaldi

Whistling Vivaldi is a style of non-fiction that reads to me as more narrative than most non-fiction books I’ve read. The back of the book really isn’t lying when it says nothing describes what the book is about better than the story of the title “…which refers to the reveling story of a young black man who realizes that he can defuse the fears of white people by whistling melodies from Vivaldi.” This book allows us to follow Claude M. Steele’s career, research, anecdotes, and line of thinking when it comes to the impact stereotypes can have a person’s life and career trajectory. Before I even started reading this subject struck me as one that would be immensely difficult to put to the test with hard data.

In social sciences it always seems to be tough to get hard data to support a theory. A lot of the examples brought up in this book made sense to me. Some because of lived experience, women are expected to be bad at math, and some because I live in the United States in 2019 and am trying hard to pay attention, white people do not feel comfortable talking about race with black people (ok I don’t have to try too hard to notice that, actually). It is incredibly gratifying to read not just about one experiment proving that stereotypes affect us but multiple experiments and the motivations behind those putting together the experiments. Steele manages to dig into every doubt that can enter ones mind when hearing about the experiments. While I agree with what he’s saying, even my non-science geared brain could poke holes in some of the experiments he conducted. Almost as soon as I thought of a reason why a particular experiment would might not be the most valid, he took the time to address that issue and presented another experiment that was conducted with that issue in mind. This felt, to me, more impressive than reading the results from a single experiment because, as Claude M. Steele is quick to point out throughout the book, the results we’re reading about in Whistling Vivaldi are a collaboration or years or work by dozens of psychologists.

I said before that this book read as more narrative to me than I was expecting. Maybe this is a virtue of having never read a social psychologists book before (happy to take a recommendation!) or maybe some of the identity issues brought up in this book rang true enough that I was projecting a bit. I suspect a combo of both and really believe that if anyone struggles with non-fiction books and has any interest in the subject of identity or stereotypes (in the world we’re currently living in…I truly hope you do!) this might be the book for you.

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