Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell

Apparently, The Guardian, a British newspaper, periodically performs a service for its readers by digesting a book into a couple of hundred words while putting a humorous slant on the whole thing. I’m just learning about this now, but I find the idea amusing.

This week John Crace writes about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. Here is a quote:

Out-li-er, noun
1: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others in the sample.
2: yet another attempt to cash in by presenting a whole load of seemingly counterintuitive facts to tell you something you basically already knew.

I’ve enjoyed Gladwell’s first two books, and I also look forward to his periodic articles in the New Yorker
where he is a staff writer. In fact, I am reasonably certain that I have already read most of Outliers in the magazine. That said, I do think that definition #2 is a fair assessment of his work.

But what bothers me is in these types of attacks on Gladwell, that he is unoriginal are misguided. As he himself points out in a recent article by New York magazine, the role of a journalist is parasitic: one doesn’t have a career without leeching off others. The man isn’t an academic; he’s a journalist. There is a difference.

Maybe his books aren’t revolutionary, but the man can freaking write. You can’t put these books down. He is able to spin a yarn in a way that few others can, making something like innovations in jarred pasta sauce fascinating. How many other authors could we say the same for?

Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics have spurred a whole genre of people trying to replicate their success. So far as I’ve seen, all the other books have failed not because the subject matter wasn’t original, but because they weren’t able to frame the material in an interesting and compelling way. Dan Ariely’s book on behavioral economics wasn’t well written nor did I learn anything from it, but because it was based on his own experiments I am supposed to value it over something that has at least one of those categories in its favor?

As Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economics professor behind Freakonomics, has said, good writing that excites people will get you farther than boring stuff, no matter the depth of the subject matter. In other words, presentation is just as important as content, perhaps even more so. And that’s what Gladwell has, and for what he is doing with his books, I think it is more than enough.

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