Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Outlier

by Edward J. Albenstein

In his most recent column, David Brooks writes about Malcolm Gladwell. He begins:
All day long, you are affected by large forces. Genes influence your intelligence and willingness to take risks. Social dynamics unconsciously shape your choices. Instantaneous perceptions set off neural reactions in your head without you even being aware of them.

What do these ideas have in common? They are intuitive. They are as inherently familiar to young children as they are to the mentally decrepit. Any of them would be an ideal topic for the term paper you need to start writing because it's due tomorrow. And yet, all of them--with the help of a cute name ("blink!"), a few "wouldn't ya know it" anecdotes, and a dollop of catchy rhetoric--have been compiled into books that have catapulted their author to the top of every best seller list they can find. Why? That author was none other than the sorcerer of the Amazon sales rank, Malcolm Gladwell.
There's something I must reluctantly admit: the second paragraph is mine. Brooks's actual second graf was less like a portrayal of reality, and more like a recap of a wet dream starring a hipster-fro and a pair of undulating, steamed-up, right-wing glasses.

Before I go any further, a clarification is in order. I have nothing against pop science. Books like The Selfish Gene, The Moral Animal and Guns, Germs and Steel have been instrumental in making readers with even the most rudimentary scientific knowledge conversant on their subjects. Each of these texts was able--in plain language, and (unfortunately, I think) with minimal use of statistics and charts--to present some of the research that led to the most fascinating discoveries about the world around us.

My gripe with Gladwell, then, is that he skips the spaghetti and goes straight for the meatballs. To read Gladwell is to reach for the trophy without bothering to run the race. Swinging like a gibbon through a forest of anecdote-trees, Gladwell makes it clear on page after page why he is the undisputed master of the "how fucking cool is THAT?!" school of science writing.

The distinction between Gladwell and, say, Richard Dawkins can be illustrated as the basic difference between this:
"At high temperatures, liquids high in fultose create brilliant rainbows of gaseous matter. For example, wave your Bunsen burner around a can of fultose-rich Dr. Pepper for long enough, and the soda will turn yellow."
and this:
"I burned some Dr. Pepper with a torch lighter yesterday, and it turned fucking yellow!"
Now Dr. Pepper doesn't actually turn yellow when you burn it. And Lord knows I'd be first in line to read an article full of sentences like the second one if it did (and if people lined up to read articles, which I truly think they should). But the point is, what do we get out of these two passages? From the first, we take away a general piece of knowledge about fultose that will inform any future fultose-oriented activities in which we might engage. In the second, we find out that something totally epic happens when you burn Dr. Pepper.

I think it's clear what I'm getting at. Look, the last thing I want is for the airport bookstore industry to go out of business. So keep buying Gladwell's books, and read them if you like them. But let's keep in mind that, somewhere in between imparting knowledge and teaching, there is an important step we might call grasp. Which, come to think of it, would make a pretty decent title for Gladwell's next book.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

Good on you for trusting your intuition. I remember starting Blink with great expectations, only to ask (à la Peggy Lee), Is that all there is?