Recommendation: You can’t argue with Gladwell’s storytelling; it is simply superb. His logic and conclusions, on the other hand, can be a little spotty. Still, this book is worth a paperback buy just to get you thinking about the little things.
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Today, we’re reviewing The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (ever heard of him?). This book became quite the phenomenon when it was initially released in 2000, and it isn’t hard to see why. Gladwell writes the hell out of this book. Non-fiction titles usually take me a little longer to work through than their fictional brethren (especially the Alice Munros and Susan Steinbergs of the world), but a Gladwell written piece eschews this trend. It’s just so readable and that is simply a skill that you cannot teach. I was doing my SOP reading this on the subway and, while I did manage to get off at the correct stop, I was definitely “That Guy” walking slowly towards the exit, bumping shoulders with passersby as my nose hung down firmly in my book.
I’ll stop reiterating every article you’ve ever read about Malcolm Gladwell’s greatness to give you the low-down on this book. Mr. Gladwell has a theory and it goes a little something like this; the difference between an idea/show/book/thought/trend/whatever being picked up and becoming a cultural hit or being ignored and becoming a giant flop depends on subtle unexpected changes more than giant revelations. Understanding who to market to, how to make your idea stick, and the context involved are all crucial to making something go from a local fad and “tip” into the realm of national bonanza. Gladwell draws from a very eclectic pool of examples, explaining everything from the sudden drop in NYC crime rates to the meteoric (though temporary) popularization of Airwalk skate shoes.
Let’s get the bad stuff outta the way. Similar to the problem I had with Robert Greene’s Mastery (but on a much, much, much smaller scale), I was not always convinced that Gladwell’s conclusions had any sort of science behind them. The section that really felt shaky to me was The Law of the Few, where Gladwell describes the three types of people—Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople—that are necessary to push an idea into the forefront of cultural conscience. Greene gives profiles on the people who he thinks embody each type, but he doesn’t give much more than anecdotal evidence to support his ideas. Why was Paul Revere’s ride successful in alerting US militia to the approach of British troops while William Dawes is lost to the history books? Because Paul Revere was a “Connector” and developed Friendships with important people in each town! It’s a pretty simple explanation and, to my understanding, it pretty drastically diminishes the accomplishments of the other two members of the Midnight Ride. Also, it doesn’t mention anything about the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” which was the original reason that Revere was pushed into the limelight and Dawes was left in the dark. So, that’s shady to say the least and, if nothing else, would probably warrant Gladwell using less absolute terms than he does. Not to mention that up-and-coming author Jonah Berger has been openly questioning Gladwell’s Law of the Few.
But, back to the good stuff. Even without providing the greatest evidence, Galdwell does introduce a different way of analyzing unexpected social change. The most intriguing example is the “Fixing Broken Windows” theory that Gladwell explains regarding the sudden drop in NYC crime rates after 1990. Rather than crediting increased police forces or Roe v. Wade, Gladwell sides with the idea that, by doing a Collection of small things like cleaning graffiti off subway cars, enforcing turnstile payment, and stopping public urination and vagrancy, the culture of NYC shifted. People started to feel that rules were being enforced, so they started following them, and suddenly crime plummeted. It’s a really interesting idea and while I’m tempted to conclude that it’s a little too simple, I don’t think it’s without merit. That’s the feeling that I got from The Tipping Point over and over; a fresh perspective that probably isn’t a complete answer, but likely has more significance than you would have otherwise imagined. And really that’s more than enough to get out of a book. You can’t get the answer for everything, but if the book is making you think, then you’ve invested your time wisely.
It’s time for another tangent and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call this awful, it is something less than complementary. I know I just gushed a whole bunch about what a great non-fiction author Malcolm Gladwell is, so this is about to be a tad hypocritical, but that’s just life. I guess I will qualify this by saying that in no way is this all Gladwell’s fault, but sometimes you get unlucky and I happened to have reached my limit while reading his book. Sorry, bud, you’re taking the brunt of this one. I noticed that Gladwell describes the people he encounters in this book EXACTLY THE SAME WAY AS ANY OTHER NON-FICTION BOOK EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANS MAKING THINGS DOES. Here’s how it works: A. Give the name and title of whoever you’re interviewing. B. Include a description of that person ranging from one sentence to one paragraph in length, usually including a couple quirky, defining features. C. Move on. Example: “He was a slender man in his late thirties, with sandy-colored hair and glasses, dressed that day in jeans and a windbreaker” (133). On its own, this is a pretty effective method. It gets the point across, doesn’t take up a ton of time, and still helps the reader understand something unique about the subject. Unfortunately, everybody everywhere everytime everysituation every(non-ficiton)book always always always describes people this way. And I’m sick of it. A lot of these authors have considerable talent, perhaps none more so than Gladwell, so I think it’s time that they step up their game, switch up the constructs, and just do something slightly different. Just try it, please, give me some variety.