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Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing [Paperback]

Po Bronson , Ashley Merryman
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Feb 2014

Compete better...

In a competitive situation our bodies can experience the same level of stress hormones as jumping out of a plane. Competition is often the key to outstanding achievement. But what is it that makes the difference between rising to the challenge and buckling under pressure?

Using groundbreaking studies in diverse scientific fields, Bronson and Merryman demonstrate that understanding how to harness our competitive fire means we can perform our best - whether the contest is sporting, academic or in the workplace.

Why are men typically prepared to gamble on long or even stupid odds and women aren't?

Why do some less talented students consistently outperform their smarter class mates in crucial exams?

Why do higher levels of testosterone actually make you less selfish and more cooperative and cognitively astute?

Why do so many market-leading companies cede their top position because they become risk averse at the wrong times?

Why do sports teams where the pay differential between players is the greatest win more?

The answer to all this and more is in New York Times no.1 bestselling authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Top Dog:The Science of Winning and Losing

'A great read for those paralyzed by the fear of failure as well as thosewho hunger for success'

Huffington Post


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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ebury Press (6 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0091951577
  • ISBN-13: 978-0091951573
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 136,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Fascinating ... Bronson and Merryman, the award-winning authors of the 2011 bestseller NurtureShock, clearly and cogently explain why, physiologically, some of us are at our best when it counts while others choke." (San Francisco Chronicle)

"Terrific" (Daniel Coyle, author of Talent Code)

"Intriguing" (Booklist)

"Illuminating and entertaining" (Kirkus Review)

"Bronson and Merryman's investigation will have folks rethinking the impulse to win at work and play" (Publisher's Weekly)

Book Description

The psychology and science behind our competitive drive by the New York Times number one bestselling author

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By AK TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Competition - be it in school, during sports, at work, in politics, or at home - is very much an ever present component of our lives and certainly something we can all benefit from understanding better. Bronson and Merryman have made a credible start at explaining how we compete differently, to what extent this is genetically predetermined and which areas of our handling of competitive pressure remain to be shaped by conscious acts - ours or those of coaches, parents, bosses, etc.

Like the authors' previous joint work - Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong - the book heavily relies on up to date science but never strays too deep. This means it will more than satisfy the casual reader but may leave people, who have previously already explored the topic somewhat, not completely satisfied.

Just like in Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong one can only compliment the authors for not trying to squeeze a myriad examples into a limited framework, which would make it both bloated and repetitive. While there are plenty of examples given, they are used to develop the topic further, to explore the effects of our genetic endowment, as well as those that come from our nurturing in the formative years, and from the competitive context we are put into.

The real value of the book in my eyes also lies in comparing and contrasting different approaches, as well as indirectly advising how to ameliorate our inborn attitudes to competition.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
"Let the young men now arise and compete before us." -- 2 Samuel 2:14 (NKJV)

Top Dog is that rare book that combines psychology with physiology while also attempting to provide some practical insights that readers can apply. I believe that those who are looking for physiological information will probably like this book the best. The psychological insights are next best. The practical lessons come next in value.

Those who think that competition has been downplayed too much as a mechanism for social improvement will find powerful arguments here for ways that vying with others can lead to accomplishing much more.

For me the big takeaway message was that individuals perform best in quite different ways: Some need to be part of a team; others need maximum stress, many need very little stress, and still others need to identify with a purpose. While I was quite aware of what my own best combination is, I hadn't given much thought to how that might differ for others. While I'm helping students prepare for competition in the future, I intend to pay much more attention to first understanding what is optimal for each one. That was well worth the time I spent reading the book.

While it was good to know a lot more about the various hormones and their effects on competitors, the book had a lot more of that information than I can use or interested me. If you are a student of physiology, you may well have the opposite reaction that much more should have been included.

If you want to get a quick sense of the book's practical tips, they are efficiently summarized from the bottom of page 238 through 240. If you decide to read the book, you may find those three pages to be a good place to go when you decide to refresh your appreciation of the book.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reading 27 May 2014
By Will M
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Incisive & easy to read, great information that really challenges the way you think & coach both youth & elite sports
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Top Dog 6 May 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Some useful information, some interesting research and findings. Useful as a background manual for those involved in managing others. Liked the short chapters & punchy style.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  79 reviews
77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unexpectedly insightful! 22 Feb 2013
By Gaetan Lion - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Po Bronson refers to a huge reservoir of social sciences in analyzing how we compete. And, he uncovers many counterintuitive findings. Most everything we were told or we intuitively believe is wrong when it comes to competing. I'll share just some of those insights below. The book has obviously many more.

Forget about the power of positive thinking. When it comes to competing you need focus, intensity, and readiness to face expected obstacles and adversity. A bit of insecurity and self-doubt motivates you to try harder. Instead, positive thinking makes you mellow and take success for granted without being aware of the needed effort to actually succeed. Many studies have confirmed that positive thinking is not associated with superior performance. "What matters is not Positive vs Negative Thinking, it's Additive vs Subtractive Thinking" states Bronson on pg. 163. Additive thinking is reviewing your performance and uncovering opportunities for improvement. Subtractive thinking is regretting you did not do this or that without thinking of the necessary skill improvement needed to move forward.

Teamwork is way overrated. People underestimate how much time is wasted in teamwork. 62% of software projects are delivered late. 49% are over budget. Productivity per person can drop 40% even within a small team.

Forget about team spirit. Some of the most productive teams had a hostile environment. Think of Abraham Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" and the fractious geniuses of the Manhattan Project. Some of the best orchestras are the ones associated with the most discord among musicians during practice. They are perfectionists who push each other to superior collective performance. "A conflict free team means no one is bringing anything to the table that might engender controversy." From a performance standpoint, that's bad.

The word "teamwork" alone is a major talent repellant. In the workplace, if you want to recruit and attract top talent do not mention teamwork in your add. Top talent wants to be challenged and have the opportunity to excel and demonstrate their superior contribution. A workplace can be egalitarian and noncompetitive, but it will repel top talent who is looking for recognition and compensation for their superior performance. The profile of elite scientists and geeks is not team oriented at all. They are very competitive. The top 6% of physicists produce over 50% of all published papers. At TopCoder, the top 5% of prize earners received 80% of the total prize pool. At Linux, the vast majority of implemented computer codes are generated by a very small elite of top notch computer programmers.

Motivation at work is complex. The more complicated the job, the worse people perform when being monitored. Also, introverts work most productively without supervision that they find distracting. They work better alone and in a competitive environment. Meanwhile, extroverts are stimulated by interaction. Without it, they get bored. They work better in a team and in a cooperative environment.

The winner is not the one who practiced the most (the "10,000 hour" bit as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell OUTLIERS). It is the one who performs best under pressure. When people say "at the top level it is all mental" they don't grasp that the mental mindset directly affects physiological responses and athletic performance. In other words, the mental drives the physical.

Genetic make up plays a huge role on how we handle stress. Our behavior is ruled by the catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) enzymes. The COMT enzymes reduce excess dopamine level, a neurotransmitter that fuels the brain reward center. Some people have fast acting COMT enzymes that reduce excess dopamine quickly. This allows them to handle stress well and even to need stress to perform at their best. In regular conditions, they may be unmotivated. Others have slow acting COMT enzymes that take longer to reduce excess dopamine. They get overwhelmed and don't perform well under stress. But, they may be more focused under normal conditions. And, some people have a balance of the two speeds of COMT enzymes behaving somewhat in between the two described profiles. Pro Bronson shares an excellent table on pg. 71 that outlines the behavioral differences between the fast COMT individuals (Warriors) and the slow COMT ones (Worriers). The Warriors have sub-optimal dopamine levels under normal conditions (bored easily), but optimal ones during stress (perform well under stress). They are good test takers and are good at rapid task switching. Somehow, when malfunctioning they are prone to schizophrenia. The Worriers are just the opposite. They have optimal dopamine levels under normal conditions (focused in daily life). But, they have too much dopamine when under stress (freak out). They are not good at rapid task switching. But, they have a better working memory. When malfunctioning they are predictably prone to anxiety.

Surprisingly, Worriers can handle stress when the later is somewhat predictable within a specific profession. For instance, Worriers ultimately can make for the best pilots even in stressful situations. With experience they learn to handle all the customary stressors of their profession. And, with superior working memory, complex planning, and thinking capabilities they can over time excel and surpass Warriors capabilities.

There is a strong genetic gender gap. Regardless of COMT genotype, estrogen slows down dopamine reabsorption by 30%. Women have a strong leaning towards slow COMT related psychological behavior.

Women are much better at assessing their skill level and their probability of winning. Men are often overconfident. As a result, women compete much less readily. Often, if they don't feel they have a fair chance of winning they won't feel like wasting their time. Meanwhile, men will more readily compete without investing much time in assessing their probability of winning. This is why there are so few women in Congress. It is not discrimination. After all there are more women voters than men. Women are a lot less likely to throw their hat in the ring when probability of winning is low. And, in politics on your first few campaigns, one's chance of winning is often low.

Women manage or reduce risk more than men. In gambling, women make smaller bets.

Women are better stock analysts on Wall Street. Women are under represented in this field clearly because of cultural discrimination. Wall Street is one of the last bastion of cultural machismo still standing.

Men are risk takers. Thus, they account for the vast majority of venture capitalists, start ups, and high tech company founders. For women, those fields do not provide attractive odds (they are right). Women are focused on the probability of losses. Men are focused on the gain potential. Both psychological profiles play an important role within our business culture and economy.

Women thrive in a competitive academic environment. The strong academic performers will pull all the other girls up. Boys react differently. The strong performers will actually cause the performance of the weaker ones to deteriorate as the latter get discouraged and intimidated. As a parent, consider placing your girl in the best possible school with the smartest peers possible. Put your boy in a school with the best teachers, but not necessarily the most academically competitive peers. To study the early academic challenges of boys, I also recommend the excellent Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind.

How one interprets stress in sports is key. Stress can be interpreted as a threat and puts one in a prevention-oriented mode (risk averse, minimizing losses). Stress can also be interpreted as a challenge associated with a gain-oriented mode (seeking opportunities, risk taking, maximizing gains). Po Bronson refers to it as playing not to lose vs playing to win. Those different mindsets have strong physiological implications. In sports, the prevention-oriented mode through the noradrenaline vs adrenaline equilibrium causes your veins to constrict, reduces your aerobic capacity and lung functions, and affects your glucose production. In other words, it impairs athletic performance. Thus, playing not to lose is often counterproductive and actually causes one to actually lose. When playing to win all the physiological effects are opposite and enhance athletic performance.

Bronson's analysis of the Mauresno-Henin 2006 Wimbledon women's final was excellent. He demonstrated that set by set the one who played conservatively lost to the one who went for her shots. One should also factor that grass is the surface that does favor a playing to win strategy (on clay it may be the opposite).

How one interprets stress at work is also key, but it is different. In a gain-oriented mode, your amygdala is turned down, and your brain's reward center is turned up. You are more creative, work well under pressure and tight deadlines. But, you may make more mistakes as a result. In a prevention-oriented mode, your physiological response is just the opposite. However, this mindset has its benefits. You are more focused on the details. You are more diligent, make fewer mistakes. You can anticipate obstacles. Our information age requires from us that we have both psychological systems and thinking styles highly tuned up. And, that we have the ability to shift mode as needed to optimize our work performance and the one of the firm.

Are you a good sport? How you handle wins (that's the easy part) is very predictive of how you handle losses (not so easy) and vice versa. Bronson has an interest list of four archetypes of win/loss styles on page 237. You will most probably identify with one of those. Hopefully, it won't be too embarrassing. But, if it is, it will eventually lead you to wisdom or at least humor. On one of the last pages, Bronson has a great concluding statement: "with experience, people learn that winning and losing are just short-term consequences to the long-term goal: improvement."

There are a lot of interesting "effects." The "network effect" is the positive competitive and cooperative force triggered by talented people specializing in a discipline living and working proximate to each other. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are such clusters of talent with strong network effect. Richard Florida in Who's Your City? studied this concept in fruitful details. The "Matthew Effect" is the dynamic whereby an early champion receives an increasing amount of resources, positive feedback, adulation so that he distances himself further from the remainder of the field. The "Mark Effect" describes when organizations take steps to equalize the competitive field by redistributing the resources that would otherwise automatically gravitate towards the early winners. This is most prevalent in k-12 grades.

Out of 240 pages of studying the science of competition, Bronson offers one single page of self-help (pg. 239) on how to leverage the science to make you a better competitor. And, that's the way it should be. Bronson focused on the science, not on the pop psychology that plagues the self-help genre. Once you study the science, the self-help part becomes self-evident, yet very challenging. It relates to knowing thyself (what COMT type are you?). How do you frame stress (challenge vs threat)? What mindset, working environment, and sports are optimal for your own performance? Within your psychological profile, what can you change? What should you accept and work with to improve your performance in life?
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Risk taking = good? 1 April 2013
By Timothy Riordan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Science of Winning and Losing is Top Dog's subtitle which drew me in. I read it assuming that it would explore why people win or lose, and perhaps give some advise on how someone might "win" more frequently having read the book. Instead, It's an argument in favor of competition for learning and developing skills, with lots of research and studies to back up that argument. So, win number one goes to marketing.

As a book about competition, there is lots of interesting stuff in Top Dog. There's info about the differences in how men and women decide when to compete. There's a breakdown about people who fare well in competitions and those who do not (these groups will forevermore be known as "Warriors" or "Worriers"). There's discussion about the various hormones that are released in competition and how they affect us (spoiler--testosterone doesn't necessarily make you super-aggressive). The authors seem a bit over-invested in defending competition against forces determined to "support and nurture" people into growth and maybe fairly so.

Overall, I found this book lacked a clear point or thru line to hold the research and studies together. I'm a lover of all the behavioral economics and brain-science that's been coming out in the last few years: Dan Ariely, Daniel Kanheman, Chip and Dan Heath, anything that provides insight into our thought processes and offers a few clear applications in the real world is fascinating to me. The info in Top Dog was interesting and some of it I'll try to apply, but overall I found it's points scattered and not terribly useful. Moreover, the narration often spoke as if a "Warrior" mindset and risk taking were implicitly good which I thought was an odd prejudice considering the research cited in the book (at least sometimes) implied the opposite.
29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book for everyone 5 Feb 2013
By Peter J. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a book about a subject that all of us are involved with - competition. We compete all the time in a myriad of different contests, and some of us are much better at competition than others - this book explains why, how you can improve, and how coaches, business managers and leaders in general can drive this improvement. These explanations (plural because many different aspects of competition are considered) are based on the results of behavioral psychology and biology, but you do not have to be a physiologist or biologist to understand the book. The writing is entertaining and very clear, and does not require any scientific background. I recommend this book to parents, teachers, students, coaches, athletes, employers, employees, and military leaders - in short to everyone. Below is a general discussion of some of what is in book.

o The book begins with how people react to stress and competition - the biological reasons why some people freeze up under stressful situations and others do not, and why competition improves some people's skills but degrades that of others.
o The book describes how a genetic variation can drive some people to be "warriors" - those who respond better to new situations and have less of a tendency to freeze up under them, and others to be "worriers" - those who are less tolerant of new situations and more likely to freeze up when confronted by them. Lest one think that we should all strive to be warriors, the book points out that worriers tend to have better working memories, are better organizers and can be habituated to specific stressful situations and can then handle them successfully.
o The book contrasts those who seek to win and those who seek not to lose and how the latter strategy often leads to failure in a competition.
o The book discuses the many different biological responses between men and women and how each handles competition - why men are more likely to take on competition with very little chance of success, whereas women tend to compete only when there is a realistic chance for success.
o Much of the book is devoted to the competition between teams. It discusses how men and women differ in their response to being in a team.
o The book contains lengthy discussions of the effects of the hormones testosterone and cortisol - how they interact with one another and how their influences are generally completely different from what people generally believe them to be.
o The book shows how the results of behavioral psychological studies and biological measurements can be used by parents, teachers, coaches and business managers to improve the ability of those they are leading and to realize some of the inherent biological limitations of those they lead and how to act accordingly.
o While the book does not contain footnotes, it does contain 79 pages of sources and references keyed to each chapter.

My only reservation, and it is not enough to outweigh my 5-star rating, is that the degree to which environmental factors, such as the conditions under which a person is brought up in, are not considered. I would have liked to have seen a clearer statement that the observations in the book represent average ones, often expressed in statistical terms, but that individuals can and do rise above any genetic tendency that they may have. Nonetheless, this is a terrific, well-written and most illuminating book, and I highly recommend it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How and Why We Compete as Men, Women, Individuals, and Groups! 3 Mar 2013
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (authors of Nurtureshock) have written a book whose large message (kind of) bucks the trend of the self-esteem movement: while some people do worse under the pressure of competition, competitive situations (whether against oneself or others) seem to bring out many people's best. The book is devoted to 'filling in' that basic thesis with scientific data from a vast array of fields from behavioral economics to neoroscience.

First, the basics of how stress and our reaction to it work. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces adrenaline, the body's way of contfronting on stressful situations. COMT is an enzyme that degrades dopamine. People's bodies produce varying levels of dopamine, low dopamine levels leading to an overall competition-avoiding personality, etc. These two 'work together' to determine how a person will react to stress and competition. If your body produces a lot of dopamine naturally, but also produces a high level of COMT (to degrade the dopamine), you may handle stress and competition quite well. If you produce the same high level of dopamine but have a low level of COMT (meaning less dopamine is degraded), you may end up being the type who gets stressed very easily, "overreacting" to mildly stressful situations. Low dopamine levels and high COMT may produce someone who doesn't react strongly enough in stressful or competitive situations. Etc.

But the book also talks about the differences in how men and women generally compete. Conventional wisdom tends to say that women aren't very competitive naturally (and those who are have simply learned to get on in a man's competitive world. But like much common wisdom, there is only a grain of truth to this. Pouring over studies of behavior and neuroscience, the authors make a case that women are as competitive as men, but simply are more judicious about when they enter competition.... generally when they believe they have a realistic chance of winning. Women, in other words, look at the odds of whether they have a chance to win, and if they think they do, they compete every bit as hard as men. Men, on the other hand, tend to place more emphasis on what they would gain if they did win (than what their chances are of winning). The authors do refrain from suggesting that one strategy is better than the other; in fact, both strategies may have evolved because they have survival value in different contexts. But they do give some surprising stats showing, for instance, that women investors and money managers have a better track record with their somewhat more conservative strategy than men, who frequently make riskier investment choices.

There are some other great challenges to the conventional wisdom here. Foremost is a reassessment of what testosterone and oxytocin are and do. For a long time, scientists told us that testosterone was simply the "aggression drug" and that oxytocin is the "care/empathy drug." It turns out that things are quite a bit more complicated than this. Studies are showing that testosterone can not only increase one's aggression, but increase allegiance with a group when that group is in competition with another group. (Soccor players with high levels of testosterone seem more likely to do things like pass the ball and assist so that team mates can score.) Similarly, oxytocin does not just increase care and empathy, but care and empathy toward those in one's in-group (it also increases aggression against those in the out-group).

Lastly, I think an overall message we should take from the book is that competition is not necessarily the bad, intrinsic-motivation-killing, thing (especially when kids are concerned) that we have been told it is by the "self-esteem movement." Yes, some people do not thrive, but wither, when they are faced with competitive situations. But most actually do better when they compete either against themselves or others. Kids who compete often learn to care more about the activity they are doing (sport, music, etc) than those who do not compete at those same activities. Competition also helps people learn to deal with being in stressful situations, both at how to be successful in them AND cope with lack of success. (Of course, they are also careful to acknowledge that healthy competition has necessary conditions, like competitors being mindful of sticking to rules of fair play, and the competition being designed so that competitors believe it to be a fair fight.)

Overall, this book was very interesting to read. While written in a easy-going style, there is much information here, and those wanting to look at the more scholarly literature will find a large section of citations pointing them to articles they can pursue further. Teacher, parents, company executives, and just the generally interested lay public should all be able to find something in this book that can help them understand why and how we (should) compete.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but not very useful 5 April 2013
By J. Fuchs - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have done a great job of analyzing what makes some people perform well under pressure and it isn't what you might expect. They look at why competition is exhilarating to some people and stress-inducing to others and why motivation works differently in these two types.

But is interesting as all the analysis is, the book is not a way to "get back one's competitive fire", which is how the book has been promoted. There's really no practical application other than, perhaps, for various astute leaders of companies who are able to figure out how to implement this information in their organizations.

There are also only two types of people in Top Dog. There is no attempt to tie in the data to any other scientific system including ones that analyze different personality types.

In the end I found everything in here really interesting, but since I'm not a professional athlete or world figure, it didn't really help me with my own motivation or productivity, which was what I expected after hearing interviews with the authors.
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