November 22, 2013

"There is nothing remotely challenging, for most of Gladwell’s readers, in this story; it is the sort of uplift in which they already believe."

"The dominant narrative for the last three centuries has been one in which the power of elites and rulers is progressively overcome by the moral force of the common man and woman who sticks up for what is right. Far from being a forbidden truth, this is what everyone thinks. Here we can glimpse one of the secrets of Gladwell’s success. Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity."

From John Gray's TNR article "Malcolm Gladwell Is America's Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer/The heavily-footnoted uplift of 'David and Goliath.'"

Here's the book, "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants," in case you nevertheless want to buy it.

If not, maybe this is a good place to remind you that you can always show a little love for the blog called Althouse whenever you need to do some shopping, by using the Althouse Amazon Portal (the link for which is always up there in the blog banner).

Have you been buying books that make you feel like you're getting something challenging and daring but that really are just reinforcing stuff you already believe and want to keep believing?


Robert Pearson said...

Libraries, people, free public libraries. After reading it for free, If you like a Gladwell book so much that you want it forever, buy it.

Doubtful, but you can go through his bibliography and check those out, keep doing new iterations of that bibliography thing until you find out that you want to buy Aristotle, Seneca and Frankl.

Henry said...

Gladwell is an engaging writer, with a talent for picking interesting topics. But he really has a huge streak of credulousness right through the center of his thinking. I realized that when he started writing about sports. He brings the same "here's the secret that everyone overlooked" gee-whizzification to things that have an utterly obvious explanation and well-known history.

I've found that the books that are most challenging and daring are the ones a century old or more. Those are often free, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Mountain Maven said...

Gladwell's problem is that while charming,he is usually wrong. Like a no talent guy like me could be pro golfer if I had spent 10,000 hours practicing. He's like Thomas Friedman, sounds great but wrong. Doubt me? Friedman admires the Chinese government's approach to getting things done.

Crunchy Frog said...

A no talent guy like you could probably do pretty well golfing if you spent 10,000 hours working on it. Do you have any idea how long 10,000 hours spent on one thing is? The trick is perseverance, which requires positive feedback. If you absolutely suck at something, or just don't have the passion for it, you aren't going to invest enough time at it to become proficient.

What the hell does Thomas Friedman have to do with Gladwell?

m stone said...

Agree with Henry.

I'm in the first third of Gladwell's new book and after my reading of his two previous books, the anecdotal quality of his data is running thin.

To his credit, Gladwell found a niche in this genre of reporting/discovery/writing.

mccullough said...

I find I'm attracted to books that do the opposite of what Gladwell does. They seem to provide reinforcement to previously held beliefs but really work to undermine them.

Brennan said...

I thought Gladwell's books were fantastic reads. I did not want to put them down. I thought of them as books that were solving a problem I had noticed for most of my life. I liked reading, but I really liked reading the works where I can be fooled by randomness of academic studies.

Like Henry, Gladwell started to sound like BS once he got into writing about sports. This is an area I know much about than what Gladwell writes about in his books.

mccullough said...


If you think Gladwell is full of BS on stuff you know about, it's safe to infer he's full of BS on the other stuff too.

Kirk Parker said...

Mountain Maven,

When did Thomas Friedman ever sound good? When he was killing us via torturing-extended-metaphors-to-death as in The Lexus and the Olive Tree? Gag me.

William said...

Churchill said that about half of what he knew was wrong, but the problem was he didn't know which half. There are many at Gallipoli or Dresden who would claim he put too high an estimate on his reasoning powers, but, whatever it was, it was much higher than most of his contemporaries.....It was certainly much higher than Beatrice Webb and, in comparison to Hitler or Stalin, it was astronomically higher. Academics like Webb (and Gladwell) put too high a power on their reasoning powers and their ability to understand the awful randomness of history. There is no rational reason for Hitler or Stalin to gain power. It just happened. Ditto with Churchill or, for that matter, the Webbs. We like to think that because some events are reducible to rational analysis than all events are. Baloney. In the end it's all just phrenology and eugenics and the superiority of the vaginal versus the clitoral orgasm. The best informed are just as dumb as the rest of us, but they use bigger words and more cogent arguments to advance their ignorance.

Lewis Wetzel said...

I once read an interesting criticism of marxism-leninism by a contemporary Polish intellectual (sorry, can't find the ref).
Anyhow, he said that the fatal intellectual flaw of marxism-leninism was its failure to explain history. That was supposed to be the pinnacle achievement of Marx. He explained the gears and power that drove history, and yet the commies were terrible predicting what history would do. He pinpointed post WW2 Western prosperity as the cause of the eventual disintegration of the communist states. They could not explain it, the West should have been getting poorer and the socialist world richer, but it was not happening and they had no explanation for it that fit their philosophy.

Andy Freeman said...

> If you think Gladwell is full of BS on stuff you know about, it's safe to infer he's full of BS on the other stuff too.

Otherwise known as the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

CachorroQuente said...

"Do you have any idea how long 10,000 hours spent on one thing is?"

10,000 hours is probably the minimum an ambitious law student should spend studying the law during law school. It's way less than a medical student will spend studying medicine during medical school. Then, after graduating, the MD will spend 10s of thousands more hours preparing to be a competent doctor -- not an expert, just competent.

An auto mechanic will probably accumulate 10,000 hours in five years or so. Not many auto mechanics with five years experience are experts.

But, for the phenoms, like Tiger Woods or Menuhin or Feynman, 10,000 hours is probably a good start. For us mere mortals, not so much.

During his campaign for President in 1988, Al Gore bragged on his expertise on the subject of nuclear weapons because he spent eight hours per week studying the topic. That was, of course, ridiculous; unless you're comparing competence among members of Congress, who collectively know almost nothing about everything. Explains why Gore failed to graduate from both law school and divinity school. Divinity School!

So, if you're a genius (or physically gifted, as appropriate), you can probably become an expert in 10,000 hours. If not, then not.

CachorroQuente said...

I didn't know who Gladwell was, but because he's received such negative reviews lately, I thought I might give reading something of his a try. After all, if Brian Leiter hates him, how bad can he be? The only thing of his available for download from my library was "What the Dog Saw," so that's what I got.

After reading for a while I was impressed by his writing style. Interesting and light, so I thought. Reading Gladwell seemed sort of like listening to Tiny Tim sing about Tulips. The more I read, the more I became convinced of that until reading Gladwell became for me just like listening to Tiny Tim. The latter makes me want to jam ice picks in my ears just to make it stop. Reading Gladwell makes me envious of the blind.

Mountain Maven said...

"What the hell does Thomas Friedman have to do with Gladwell?"

They both write very popular books and are spectacularly wrong.