[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

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.