Yes, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, and I’m not ashamed of it…

coverI’d like to think that I was ahead of the curve in feeling embarrassed by Malcolm Gladwell, but I’m probably not. As a writer, he so perfectly exemplifies the middlebrow that I’m pretty sure he’s attracted criticism almost from the moment that he started. The common criticism of Gladwell is not just that he tells comforting, oversimplified fables about how the world works (if you work for 10,000 hours, you’re guaranteed to master something!) but that he also, supposedly, derives these fables from reading academic research and talking with experts. When you read him, you feel smart. You feel like you know something that other people don’t know. But you’re actually just getting the same old conventional wisdom. That’s the essence of the middlebrow. All of these criticisms are succinctly made in this New Republic review that I just found. 

Despite all of that, I still read and enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s work. As I’ve noticed before, he has very good storytelling instincts. And in his latest book, David and Goliath, he’s learned to weave these stories together into an impressionistic masterpiece. Within one chapter, he’s able to skip around between gang violence in New York to the Troubles in Ireland to Martin Luther King and then go back and forth and all around. It’s amazingly fun.

The whole book is about how people (or organizations, or civilizations) can beat those who are stronger than them. Actually, I’m not sure that’s what it’s about. The book might also be about how people are destined to beat those who are stronger than them? I’m not sure. It seems like the book often says that strength is a weakness and weakness is a virtue.

That’s the problem with Gladwell. He takes tiny tendencies that might have a little bit of truth to them…and then turns them into prophecies. For instance, he says that because African-Americans have been oppressed, then they were fated to conquer oppression. His argument is that, like, because they’ve already suffered so much, then nothing could scare them, and that’s why they won in the end?  This is obviously nonsense. If that was true, then why couldn’t they stave off Jim Crow in the 1800s? Why couldn’t they capitalize on initial victories in the 1920s?

The truth is that the strong are, well…they’re strong. Weak people and teams and nations can win, but it’s not particularly easy.

But there are still some great stories in there!

I particularly like the one about the heartless cancer researcher who lost his father at a young age, and then grows up to, basically, torture the kids in the leukemia ward as he tries to figure out cures for their diseases. The researcher Jim Freirich does things like put them on cocktails of debilitating chemo drugs and continue chemo for a year even after they’re cured and take painful bone marrow samples without anesthetic. But he wins in the end! And it’s all because he was so heartless! (As a result of losing his father).

Now, can Gladwell prove the heartlessless leads to progress connection? No.

Is that even a real connection? Probably not.

But it’s still a fun story!

Why I am deeply suspicious of Malcolm Gladwell

So, I am moved, I am living in Emeryville, I am somewhat settled in. The blizzard of meeting old friends has abated (just as a massive and quite literal blizzard arose in the District that I left behind). I am even writing again, so I figured it was time to come back to this blog.

As I mentioned in one of my last few posts, during this period of dislocation I have read alot of “literary nonfiction” or, as I snobbily call it, “pop nonfiction”. You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. The author is usually a character in the book. He namedrops alot of smart, successful, and somewhat obscure people, and then tells you why you should know about what they’re doing. And it’s not really possible to dip one’s feet into this genre without your toes coming up coated in Malcolm Gladwell.

Now, I like reading Malcolm Gladwell’s work. The stuff he talks about is often very new to me, and quite interesting. And when I am done reading a Malcolm Gladwell book, I feel like I really understand the world. I feel the same way I felt after taking physics in high school. All these heretofore invisible processes are now suddenly real to me. And what’s more, I can interact with them. I can manipulate them. The little principles in Gladwell’s books feel like a lever with which to move the world.

But I do not trust that feeling. Somehow, Malcolm Gladwell is always able to explain things within a few thousand words. He seems to operate off the belief that he has a question, then someone, somewhere, has answered it. And that’s true, of course. But is that answer the right one? If that answer is written down and presented in a Malcolm Gladwell book, then I am automatically predisposed to assume that it is not right.

For instance, his book Outliers, which is about how some people achieve extraordinary achievement, generated the meme — within the writing world, at least — that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery at something. But in the book, he did not really prove this thesis at all. All he did was show that Bill Gates and the Beatles had practiced a whole lot before they achieved success.

But even a minimal level of thought will reveal that 10,000 hours of practice clearly does not guarantee success in any field. Gladwell did no study on this (and it would actually be pretty difficult to study), but there are surely many people who have practiced for more than 10,000 hours and achieved no success. We just don’t know about them because they’re not rockstars, they’re waiters. They’re not billionaire entrepeneurs, they’re coding grunts. That’s the problem with Gladwell. His search for explanations is so intense that he is often willing to attribute the entire credit for a given effect to only one of its causes (and sometimes it’s a pretty minor cause, at that).

But I still like to read Gladwell, because he’s a skillful story-teller. He can’t stop. He even tells throwaway stories, just for color, that don’t serve his central point at all (and in fact make his central point seem like kind of a dick). For instance, in The Tipping Point there is a long discussion of how crime went down in New York during the 90s. Gladwell, like many commentators at the time, attributes this to the broken windows style of policing, wherein police aggressively pursue minor crimes like fare-jumping, graffiti, vandalism, etc, under the belief that these crimes can signal that greater crimes will be tolerated in this area. And while he’s talking about this, Gladwell is interviewing a former director of the New York subway system, who says:

“We had a yard up in Harlem on one hundred thirty fifth Street where the trains would lay up over night,” Gunn said. “The kids would come the first night and paint the side of the train white. Then they would come the next night, after it was dry, and draw the outline. Then they would come the third night and color it in. It was a three day job. We knew the kids would be working on one of the dirty trains, and what we would do is wait for them to finish their mural. Then we’d walk over with rollers and paint it over. The kids would be in tears, but we’d just be going up and down, up and down. It was a message to them. If you want to spend three nights of your time vandalizing a train, fine. But it’s never going to see the light of day.”

When I read that, I was shocked. How can Gladwell get a person to say something like that? I think the normal tendency of human beings is to demonize their opponents, and assume that they possess no positive virtues and care only for destruction. But this guy, Gunn, attributed all the components of true artistry to those kids…whose work he then destroyed, and was proud of destroying.

Not only is this a great quote, and one that Gladwell must have gone through hours of interviewing to get, but its inclusion in the book actually kind of hurts his point. If these kids vandalize out of an artistic impulse, and not a destructive one, then what relationship does their graffiti bear to murder? They’re not remotely the same sort of thing. But Gladwell includes it anyway. And he does that kind of thing all over. In his writing there’s sort of a general spillage of detail that gets over everything. It’s very impressive, and I think it comes out best in his New Yorker articles, which are often more like profiles, and less like comprehensive efforts to explicate the world. If you want to read some, you could read his essay collection What The Dog Saw, which is by far the best Gladwell book, or you can read exactly the same articles (and many more) for free on his website.