The US military is under growing stress but nowhere “near a tipping point”, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said recently. The chief executive of Cisco Systems Inc. assured investors that despite a 19 percent decline in quarterly income, the company was past the “tipping point” toward improving sales.
I don’t know if either has read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, about how little things can have an outsize impact, but I’m betting that neither Adm. Mike Mullen nor the technology company executive discovered the phrase in a tome on epidemiology.
When the title of a book becomes a cliché, you have to believe the author has left a deep impression on people’s minds. With Tipping Point — and Blink and Outliers, which followed — the staff writer at the New Yorker has established himself as one of America’s most unusual and nimble journalistic minds. As his best-seller rankings attest, he is also one of the most wildly successful.
His signature is an unbounded inquisitiveness about human nature. In this, his work belongs loosely to the same genre as Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s popular Freakonomics books and blog, although Gladwell tends to rely on anecdotal evidence and experts to make his points, Levitt and Dubner on data mining.
Now comes What the Dog Saw. It is an eccentric collection of 19 essays that run the gamut from the trivial (a profile of infomercial maestro Ron Popeil) to the substantial (a less expensive solution for chronic homelessness). What distinguishes each of them is a surprising, often counterintuitive, insight or two, delivered in a no-frills — even formulaic — writing style that could be a flaw in some other context, but here works beautifully, ensuring that the words don’t distract from the ideas.
Was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s nighttime flight doomed because he choked or panicked? (The two may look the same, but are “worlds apart”, Gladwell says. For the record, had Kennedy choked instead of evidently panicking, he and his passengers perhaps would have survived.) Might the powerful Catholic Church have approved of the birth control pill had John Rock, a devout Catholic who was one of its inventors, not made a tactical error in how he marketed it? Is there a better way to predict who will be a great teacher — or a great pro football quarterback?
Delightful or thought-provoking as all of them are, none of the essays, alas, can claim to be fresh. Each was previously published in the New Yorker, and I found nearly all of them on Gladwell’s Web site, Gladwell.com. The original thinker has come up with an unoriginal idea: a stocking stuffer.
That’s a fan’s complaint; I had hoped for something new from him. Of course, this sampler would be the perfect introduction to Gladwell to those unfamiliar with him: They will discover plenty to relish here, but also might notice some jarring aspects in his approach.
He has honed to a fine art the knack of losing himself in the characters in his essays — Dan Shonka, the football scout trying to assess the NFL prospects of a star college quarterback; Cesar Millan, the brilliant dog tamer of the title story, “What the Dog Saw”, and a host of others. He even goes up in a small plane with an experienced pilot to better understand the disorientation that sent Kennedy to his death as he piloted a plane in the dark and lost the horizon.
Gladwell excels at making unobvious and intriguing connections, as between football and teaching or Enron and antisubmarine warfare, and readers are swept along. But read the essays back to back to back in this collection, as you couldn’t do when they were originally published, and a few limitations become apparent.
There is nary an unsympathetic character here, and, with notable exceptions, Gladwell relies on experts to affirm positions, not to challenge them. The stronger pieces — the one taking apart the FBI’s vaunted criminal profiling methodology is a superb example — are those grounded in skepticism rather than wonder.
Sometimes also, as in his piece on the Enron scandal, “Open Secrets”, he prematurely locks into a desired conclusion — in this case that it was too much information that flummoxed the savviest minds on Wall Street, rather than too little. But the essay itself mentions several journalists and a bunch of business school students, presumably not financial wizards, who looked at Enron’s financial statements and concluded that something was amiss.
And when an author exudes authoritativeness, as he does, without being an authority himself, Gladwell can ill afford the kind of error that somehow crept into one of his essays. On the Web it has set off a minor debunking frenzy. He is being ridiculed for referring to something he calls “igon” value in a piece on options trader Nassim Taleb when the correct term, from linear algebra, is eigenvalue.
To some, the lapse is proof he’s an impostor, or at least a dilettante. But that’s a charge that can be leveled at just about any journalist, and Gladwell, singularly talented though he is, has never claimed to be anything other than a journalist.
To me, reading a Gladwell essay is like doing a crossword puzzle — a fine, challenging crossword, by the way. It’s for mental stimulation, and in this he seldom disappoints. Besides, eigenvalue was misspelled, not misused.