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The Gladwell Canon

Over the past while, I have read

These are the four books published by New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell (in the order I read them), and they represent storytelling at its very best. What they don’t represent, necessarily, is coherent and analytical argumentation. But nothing’s perfect.

Tipping Point was the first of Gladwell’s oeuvres and therein he discusses catchy ideas, powerful regimes, and sticky trends. More importantly, he asks himself (and experts, too, thank goodness): “What makes these work, where others fail?” Unsurprisingly, there’s still a lot of mystery in this area, but Gladwell illuminates some basic guidelines for making your idea work. One thing that stuck out to me was this: having a very clear notion of what the problem is and how the problem works is essential to crafting an appropriate solution.

In Blink, Gladwell shifts his focus toward intuition and snap judgements. Unfortunately, all the praise for these phenomenon comes early on, and it isn’t until later in the book that the pitfalls are discussed. What he really wants to argue is that we need to educate our instincts where we can and mitigate against them where we can’t. But that doesn’t really come out until the afterword – which, as you may have guessed, was added to a subsequent edition of the book.

Outliers is Gladwell’s most recent original work – it’s not even in softcover yet, I don’t think. Anyway, its thesis is that people who succeed don’t do so only because they’re naturally gifted, but also because they have unique opportunities. In particular, because they have the luxury and ability to acquire 10,000 hours of practice at their craft. Gladwell isn’t fatalistic about this, but instead prescribes an increase in such opportunities for all Americans. Wouldn’t the world be better off if every geeky kid had access to the supercomputers Bill Gates tested out in high school? Or if there were separate peewee hockey leagues for those born before and after June? (Players who are more advanced from day one on account of being older and bigger than their teammates tend to get more attention and eventually advance quicker than their peers.)

Finally, What the Dog Saw brings together a wide range of interesting stories Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker. each of these gives the reader insight into the way someone thinks – and it’s bound to be quite different from the way most of us think.

I love stories, so I thoroughly enjoyed each of Gladwell’s books. I read the last three over the past two months or so, and I wouldn’t have done that if the material weren’t engaging or if the themes weren’t captivating. I highly recommend reading the books. Just… think about the argument, OK? It’s not always quite right. In fact, there are some bad examples, tenuous leaps, and outright contradictions along the way. (I can rant about one that especially frustrated me, if anyone’s interested!) Being a thoughtful reader is universally a good practice – all the more so when faced with a gifted and articulate storyteller.

(Cross-posted at Diet of Bookworms.)

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