Top critical review
A Robert Greene book without the charm
Reviewed in the United States on October 27, 2018
Reading this book as a Robert Greene fan and student of human behavior, I kept asking myself why I didn’t like it. Greene has a unique gift to pull from sources throughout history, find the underlying patterns, and package them together into succinct universal laws. I first read The 48 Laws of Power 6 years ago and still regularly find myself quoting the laws as I apply them to my own life. Sadly, I won’t be doing the same for this book.
You can tell he put an incredible amount of research into the topic of human nature. As I read the introduction and saw the authorities he was going to cite to make his points, I was glued and kept turning the page to see how he would pull it off. I noticed subtle changes to his style—the chapters are longer, he’s more often quoting scientific principles instead of historical examples, and each law is stuffed with definitions of different cognitive biases we all suffer from. Each time he told the story of an historical figure, I read with curiosity to find out how he would use their experience to make his point. I was disappointed with the results. It came across to me as Greene offering encyclopedic knowledge of the subjects rather than presenting insightful takeaways. After a few chapters I soon lost interest and ended up skimming the rest.
This made me question why I lost interest in this book after being hooked to his previous ones—was the problem him or me? I had to compare this to his older books to find out.
You can tell this book looks slightly different from his previous ones without buying it: it doesn’t pull you in with beautiful graphic design like his other books do; the table of contents is minimal, unlike his previous books where each section comes with a description; and the back cover will make you squint your eyes as it takes a second to comprehend.
The first law in The 48 Laws of Power is “Never Outshine the Master”. It’s 7 pages. It starts with a 3 sentence “judgement”, followed by two memorable stories: one “transgression of the law” and one “observance of the law”, with his interpretations after each. He wraps it up with his “keys to power”, which peppers in more historical examples. On the sides of the pages are quotes, poems, and short stories, all related to the law. The graphic design and color makes it easy to scan. It’s smart, easy to read, and easy to remember.
Now look at the first chapter in this book. Its 28 pages. “Master Your Emotional Self”. A longer 6 sentence description. The first six pages are a story of the law and the remaining 22 are about his observations and lessons. Instead of using historical examples to persuade us, he’s quoting scientific studies and explaining different cognitive biases. The whole design is black and white, and just one quote at the end of the chapter. Instead of leaving the chapter remembering a compelling narrative about the dangers of throwing a nicer party than your boss, I’m left with a hazy memory of him listing a few cognitive biases that I generally already knew about and agreed with.
I know this is a small sample size, but it shows the main differences: Human Nature is longer, trades stories for science and lectures, less memorable, and not something you can pick up for ten minutes at a time.
This book doesn’t have the charm that makes Robert Greene’s other books classics. You wont find yourself quoting a law to someone, or picking it up off your bookshelf to read a chapter you found interesting a month from now, because thats not how it’s structured. It’s long and covers a wide variety of topics. At almost 600 pages, it feels like he sacrificed readability to fit in a few more topics he wants you to know about.