On the Page: Jonah Berger and Marisa Silver

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Jonah Berger

Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $26

Jonah Berger’s new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On owes a huge debt to The Tipping Point, something that Mr. Berger, a marketing professor at Wharton, acknowledges in his introduction. In college, after he switched from hard to social sciences, Mr. Berger’s grandmother sent him a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s mega-best-seller. Mr. Berger loved it and enthusiastically read everything he could find about the book (which, we can assume, means he read a lot about it). Still, he wanted more. “Sure some things catch on, but why? What was the underlying behavior that drew these outcomes?”

Mr. Berger sets out to answer that question in Contagious, which grew out of a course of the same name that he teaches at Wharton. The book outlines six basic ideas for how and why things catch on: social currency, triggers, emotion, the public, practical value and stories. Each chapter explores one of these ideas, using case studies and examples ranging from the popularity of Please Don’t Tell, the “secret” East Village bar-in-a phone booth (social currency) to Movember (mustaches for a good cause are highly visual and therefore public) to studies of most-emailed New York Times articles (emotion). Although not terribly new or well-written, the book has the Gladwellian charm of taking an obvious, intuitive concept (shopping bags act as marketing tools because everyone can see them) and explaining it in a different light. Whether Contagious itself catches on will depend on how well it exemplifies Mr. Berger’s concepts. —Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

marycoinMary Coin

Marisa Silver

Blue Rider Press, 322 pp., $26.95

Reading Marisa Silver’s third novel Mary Coin is like looking through a broken telescope: the characters appear sharply in focus one minute, only to grow hazy the next. We follow the intersecting stories of Vera Dare, a photographer modeled on Dorothea Lange, and Mary Coin, a half-Cherokee woman based on Florence Thompson, who inadvertently became an icon through Lange’s famous 1936 photograph Migrant Mother. Ms. Silver illuminates the women behind that picture, weaving in the character of Walker, a professor investigating his mysterious connection to the picture more than 70 years after it was taken.

Aptly, Ms. Silver’s writing is strongest when it takes on a photographic quality. While picking cotton, Mary catches sight of her ragged cuticles: “She felt great sadness for them, as if they were not part of her but were some children she’d seen by the side of the road …” She is less imaginative when attempting to directly evoke ideas and emotions. “Pity was a horrible thing,” Vera notes at one point. Mary’s sexual awakening is a hackneyed series of hardening nipples and aching thighs.

But the book’s nuanced considerations of photography and its dynamics prove that Ms. Silver is capable of greater complexity. Vera muses that taking another person’s photograph is “more complicated than sex, than children. Or maybe it was the exact expression of those complications, which included intimacy and distance, holding and turning away, lies and never the truth.” —Zoë Lescaze

On the Page: Jonah Berger and Marisa Silver