This is a book about why we like what we like. The author explores major areas in which preferences are commonly shared, from food and restaurants, to books, movies, music, beer, and even cats.
For me, not all of the areas he discussed were of interest, or rather, they might have been had he not belabored them so much. In addition, I didn’t always find the studies he described persuasive. Basically he concludes that there are lots of reasons we have tastes for one thing or another, and it’s hard to tell what they are.
It could be related to our memories (we love something because it reminds us of happy times as kids); expectations (the wine is expensive, so it is “supposed” to be good); the influence of our culture (we grew up in Philadelphia so we love Philly cheesesteaks) or friends or “experts,” or even identity issues (e.g., I want to be seen as someone who likes highbrow things, or conversely, I want to be thought of as more avant garde, and so I want to choose lowbrow things). We both want to be like others and we want to be different from others. Which is it? It may well be both, but a theory for anything and everything doesn’t explain much. Similarly with our taste in books and movies: seeing positive ratings by others can influence people to upgrade their evaluations, and seeing negative ratings can induce them to downgrade them. Vanderbilt avers we crave novelty, but we also crave familiarity. What exactly does all that explain?
In other words, there are theories that explain every possibility, and therefore they provide no enlightenment whatsoever.
The author does include a few interesting vignettes about music and food and movies, but beyond being diverting, they just don’t say much. He also poses some thought-provoking questions. How exactly, for example, would you describe what a carrot tastes like, without using the word carrot? (Vanderbilt points to a paucity of words to account for taste, unlike the plethora of theories to describe it!)
This doesn’t mean the subject doesn’t have the potential for being fun. There are some hilarious videos on youtube, to list but a few, with people arguing about whether grits should have sugar or salt; which Jewish holiday dishes are better (“The Great Latke-Hamantaschen Debates”); and whether deep dish pizza is better than thin crust. But in this book, the strength of preferences and the reasons behind that vehemence was mainly discussed with respect to very, very esoteric types of music.
Evaluation: I hoped this would be better, but in spite of what I thought was a potentially interesting topic, it didn’t engage me much. But then again, it’s all a matter of taste. What I like not so much, other readers/listeners will undoubtedly like a lot.
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
The narrator, Jeffrey Kafer, has apparently narrated over 300 books. He did invest his reading with good pitch and cadence, but some of his pronunciation was off. For example, he pronounced “referent” like reFERent, the noun “affect” like af-FECT instead of AFF-ect, and most egregiously, he pronounced “eschew” like es-Q.
Published unabridged on 8 CDs (9 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2016