Where Good Ideas Come From

On my third day in the city, I walked into the DC Library branch near my apartment, filled out the form for a library card, checked out two books in person, then went home and browsed their selection of e-books. As happy as I am to live within walking distance of a library again, I am more excited that the DC Library offers e-book checkout and it seamlessly works with my Nook.  The new releases have long wait lists, but the nonfiction selection boosts shorter wait times and an equally good selection.

One of my first picks was Steven Johnson’s  Where Good Ideas Come From.  Like an earlier work, The Ghost Map, Johnson pieces together anecdotal and historical evidence to land on a theory of how ideas form, though in the previous case, he spends much more time tracing the history of the cholera epidemic.  In this new work, he examines a more general concept and in the skipping around through various disciplines he lost my interest and my train of thought.  Ironically, I found his graphical analysis of a plague in London more intriguing and more of a page-turner than his examinations of the patterns that lead to great ideas.

However, the section on urbanism, specifically how cities spawn innovations, resonated with me. According to researchers, this pattern is due to the subcultures that form in cities.  It reminded me of the DC neighborhoods that boast such strong identities.  Maps recognize them by names and residents know the personalities of places.  Johnson finds that ideas most often emerge from public spaces within these city subcultures, specifically coffeehouses, which served as the original social network.  Though I don’t need another excuse to try a new coffeehouse, I’ll definitely be on the look out for good ideas when I enter the next one.

Johnson’s book would be the perfect afternoon read in a city coffeehouse, and it is less daunting than the 232 pages that it logs on the Nook.  A third of these pages are notes and historical evidence.  If you are reading it in DC, check out the ink to the Apps for Democracy, an innovative competition that spawned 47 entries in a month and provides neat tools for tourists or city dwellers. Then if you’ve got an affinity for maps, check out The Ghost Map, and let this page-turner take you back to 19th-Century London, where coffeehouses bred more than just good ideas.

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