Powers of Two

PowersofTwoPowers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs
Joshua Wolf Shenk
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, (August 5, 2014), 372 pages
Kindle Edition  $9.24, Amazon Hardcover $18.79
e-book borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

Joshua Wolf Shenk uses Powers of Two to argue against the concept of the lone genius. His thesis is that real creative breakthroughs come from two people collaborating. The case he makes is compelling. He looks at a large number of creative pairs in a wide variety of fields. His subjects include: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock, C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Jobs and Wozniak, The Curies, and many others.

And of course Lennon and McCartney. There is enough Lennon and McCartney in Powers of Two to make it worth the price of the book even if that is the only creative pair in which you are interested. Shenk goes into great depth discussing not only their collaboration, but their rivalry as well. (Rivalry is an important theme in the book. He takes a good look at the rivalry between sisters Ann Landers and Dear Abby.)

If you are interested in how Yoko Ono fits into the Lennon-McCartney dynamic as well as the dynamic of the Beatles as a whole, you will not be disappointed. Shenk’s take is interesting.

quoteThe myth of Yoko swooping in and plucking John in her pincers is the ultimate storytelling cop-out, because it distracts from the more significant thing, which is the nature and direction of John’s power. He was a vulnerable man, after all, but not weak; erratic but not passive. My sense is that John saw in Yoko a singular concatenation of opportunity.

Shenk also brings up the topic of John’s sexual orientation. Lennon, he says, was not devotedly heterosexual. This was new to me, though it is likely old news to more serious students of the Beatles. He quotes Lennon: “It’s just handy to f**k your best friend . . . And once I resolved the fact that it was a woman as well, it’s all right.” Umm, well, OK.

When a book has an afterword it is often uninteresting and adds little. That was not the case in Powers of Two. The author describes his struggles writing the book and his difficulty meeting deadlines. He frankly discusses his churlish, or perhaps childish, response when feedback on the book didn’t take the form he wanted. It’s an interesting and honest self-appraisal.

Powers of Two is a fascinating and insightful study of the creative process.

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