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Book Review

‘Powers of Two’ by Joshua Wolf Shenk

The tale of the isolated inventor and the eureka moment is deeply embedded in the American psyche. We’re captivated by depictions of a brilliant mind toiling alone until, suddenly, a light bulb flicks on. It’s a compelling image both for its near-magical simplicity and because it implies that we’re all just a flipped light switch away from our own creative breakthrough.

We’re not, Joshua Wolf Shenk assures us. In “Powers of Two,” he tears down what he calls the myth of the lone genius, arguing that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Neither can it be accomplished by committee, Shenk insists, making the case for partnership — in pairs that simultaneously compete and cooperate — as the “primary creative unit.”

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We tend to be oblivious to the power of pairs, he says, because one member often occupies the spotlight while the other stands back in the shadows. He gives the example of Tiger Woods and his former caddie, Steve Williams, who intentionally underestimated distances to compensate for Woods’s tendency to overshoot. Throughout history, Shenk says, assistants and underlings, wives and friends have been the unsung coauthors of some of the most dramatic achievements in the arts and sciences.

The accomplishments of the pairs he profiles span fields from technology to economics to entertainment, including Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Vincent and Theo van Gogh, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Pierre and Marie Curie, and Penn and Teller, among many others. The profile that gives the book its narrative spine is of John Lennon and Paul McCartney — a partnership at once tense and intimate, conflicted and confluent, and complicated enough to warrant the spotlight on its own.

With ambitions beyond the Beatles, Shenk weaves the stories of dozens of pairs throughout a complex structure broken into six sections, which correspond to his vision for the life cycle of a creative duo: The two meet, form a joint identity, take up distinct roles, find an optimal amount of distance and independence, strike a balance between competition and cooperation, and eventually break up.

Shenk’s accounts reveal the nuanced dynamics that make pairs a source of strength, pushing each partner to greater heights than either could have reached alone, while at the same time tending to be fragile and fraught with conflict. Shenk tells the reader that his interest is personal, stemming from his curiosity about what creates chemistry and how the rest of us can learn to harness the power of creative connection. He makes the endearing admission that he himself often struggles to connect, and that, observing these relationships, “I feel like an explorer gazing through binoculars, trying to see a strange and wonderful beast in the tall grass.”

Some of the insights are obvious enough not to have required binoculars, however; others border on trite. Meeting a creative partner, Shenk concludes, is often a matter of being introduced by a mutual friend or hanging around the same places. Furthermore, he deduces, people are drawn to others who share their interests. But, he finds, it can take time for prospective partners to warm up to each other. Among other discoveries: opposites attract. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Two’s company; three’s a crowd.

Much of his analysis involves creating new terms to describe the dynamics of dyads, and then defining those terms. Shenk describes one archetypal pair as “liquid and container,” defining liquid as “exciting, excitable characters; boundless,” while “the container sort exudes order and clarity. He is hollow inside” — a distinction that roughly corresponds, as Shenk acknowledges, to the ancient division between Dionysus and Apollo.

He goes on to describe two ways a pair can break up as “by stumble and by wedge,” explaining that stumbling means the opposing traits that first attracted the partners to each other ultimately drive them apart, whereas a wedge is an outside factor that comes between the two. The Beatles, he says, collapsed by both stumble (creative differences) and wedge (Yoko).

In a rambling epilogue, Shenk offers tips for managing creative relationships, but his suggestions fall short of usefulness or enlightenment. One can’t help but suspect that there may be more to chemistry, connection, and innovation that is indefinable — even magical — than the author allows. Instead of leaving the reader with the image of a light bulb flicking on, the book nudges a dimmer switch.

Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.
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