Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 28 (3/3) -- What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell's work very rarely gets tepid responses. For every business leader who swears that The Tipping Point or Blink saved his career, there's a social scientist spitting mad about Gladwell's simplification and popularization of complex theories. I argued a bit with both of those points of view when I looked at Gladwell's third book, Outliers, around this time last year, but the pattern is even clearer here.

What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell's short reportage, all from the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1996. This isn't all of his New Yorker work, but it does collect nineteen essays from that period, some of which can clearly be seen as germs for Blink and Outliers. (Though the piece that is closest to Blink, "The New-Boy Network" from 2000, is specifically about ways in which immediate, split-second judgments are wrong, and the convolutions that have to be done to get a reasoned, useful judgment in their place.)

I hope the Gladwell-haters will take the time to look at this book -- and, equally, that they'll take another look at Outliers, which superficially looks similar to Tipping Point and Blink but has a very different message; that things are more difficult and complicated than we think they are -- and see the way the New Yorker's famously rigorous fact-checking, self-effacing reportage, and demands to follow up all sides of a story have formed his reportage.

This book isn't arranged chronologically -- Gladwell lumps the essays into three large categories, more or less profiles of people, examinations of theories, and investigations of problems -- but I thought I could detect a general overall shift in Gladwell's tone and style over the course of the dozen years these pieces were written. Gladwell begins by looking for the elegant aha! theory, a simple explanation that will make all of the puzzle-pieces fall into place. But, as time goes on -- and perhaps after writing Tipping Point and Blink, which are very much elegant-theory books, in which huge swaths of human experience are explained away and cleaned up with a few simple ideas -- Gladwell turns from looking to make complex things simple towards searching for the hidden complexity in simple things.

And, even back in the earliest pieces here, it's clear to see the virtues that made the New Yorker snap him up in the first place: he has a good reporter's ability to find the right people, get them to talk, and make what they say understandable to a wider audience without (too often) over simplifying and caricaturing the details of a particular field. Or, to put it more simply, he can go out there, see what's going on, and tell us about it. We may not always agree with his explanations, but he's one of the great explainers, and arguing with him helps sharpen our own positions. I tend to be a cynic, but I'm actually happy that a writer like Gladwell is a huge bestseller; it implies that a large audience of people might, possibly, be interested in something other than the quick fix.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Hallelujah The Hills - Raise The Flag Of Your Sibling's Favorite Daydream
via FoxyTunes

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