Friday, May 20, 2011

Of Mouses and Men

by Drew Martin

The first time I was introduced to Malcolm Gladwell's writing was in a book club at work. I had hoped we would be reading literature so I was disappointed when the first assigned book was The Tipping Point. I tried to muster some enthusiasm for the selection but I felt that I would be wasting my time by reading it so I borrowed a CD version from my town library in order to listen to it while I did domestic chores. I reasoned that since this kind of book is simply informative, I would not be missing anything.

Despite my first somewhat bemoaned experience, I went on to read Blink, which a coworker lent me, and Outliers, which I bought as a gift for my father because I had heard good reviews about it and I thought he would like it: I read it after he did.

Gladwell is no doubt a smart guy with a lot to say but his curious books leave a bad taste in my mouth. The reason for this is that he reads best when he is brief.

Writers are like runners. The journalist/blogger is the sprinter, someone like Gladwell is middle distance and a novelist is the marathoner. Gladwell is not the first out of the blocks and he runs out of steam after a few laps.

I am not alone with this sentiment: I recently came across a post from just over a year ago on the Volume 1 Brooklyn blog with the title: I Don’t Like Mondays/Smurfs/Long Pieces by Malcolm Gladwell.

What works well at length is good literature, which develops and embraces the reader into its microcosm. What you get with Gladwell's books, however, is an upfront idea followed by a bunch of case studies and a lot of referring to the title of the book in a kind of mantra/marketing slogan. Finally, there is a conclusion that merely repeats the idea he opens with.

This is not a criticism of Gladwell because I do not think he strives for anything more than this as a writer or intends anything else than being the social commentator and a bestseller along the way. He would also probably be the first to admit that his writing and books are simply a means of communication and are not developed or structured in such a way to have emotional powers or aesthetic qualities. For this reason, the medium for conveying his ideas is irrelevant (might as well be a YouTube lecture) but, that being said, there is a reason to contain it in book form: Gladwell's thinking is certainly tuned through his own reading and the way he gathers and solidifies his thoughts is in the process of writing (typing on a computer).

Gladwell is a man of the times. His writings and contemplations reflect how most Americans think. He fits perfectly into this Facebook Era where a lot of brain activity is spent on networking and connecting the dots. Conceptually and philosophically, society has moved beyond a system of categorizing everything under the sun; regimented associations have given way to relational "databases," which is why Gladwell's style works.

Personally, I cannot get excited about his writing because it is too formulated for me. His approach to unifying concepts is not by rethinking them but by overthinking them. Instead of deconstruction we get reverse engineering. The problem with this method is that it is gimmicky and superficial. What he is selling with his books is fruit with sterile seeds. But again...I understand why readers like him: he has his niche and he is certainly prolific.

If there is one thing that I should point out with a critical eye, it is Gladwell's slight of hand with some of his analogies.

An analogy is faulty to begin with; it is the communication equivalent of duct tape and it has too much influence to favor or mock the original idea. When an analogy is used to rescue a complex concept that is one thing but when the analogy is used as a distraction or when it hijacks the topic, then you do have to question the motives of the person who set it up. My own analogies (herein) comparing writers to runners and Gladwell's books to fruit with sterile sees are unfair as they suggest physical limitations and impotence. They certainly are not flattering.

Gladwell's article Creation Myth, published in the May 16, 2011 of the New Yorker, is about the development of the computer mouse, from its innovator, Douglas Englebart at Standford Research Institute, to Xerox to Apple. Respectively shown here is the first mouse from each entity. Unfortunately, Gladwell uses a very politically charged analogy to compare the companies with the institute, which makes one question his intentions.