In which the journalist’s podcast and new book, Talking to Strangers, are reviewed on his own terms.
Malcolm Gladwell loves to love things. This is especially true of things underloved by the rest of the world. He loves Catholics. He loves law review articles with «epic footnotes.» He loves Naked Chicken Chalupas. The word itself he stresses and lets linger: a shameless verbal fart. «I love«—then a savoring pause—»Dick Cavett,» he says in a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History. In writing, he can’t help but add the italics. According to his new book, Talking to Strangers, William Lyon MacKenzie King, the former prime minister of Canada, didn’t just like Hitler. «He loved him,» writes Gladwell, who’s Canadian. You’ll find the sentence in his beloved footnotes.
In his beloved footnotes. Do you see what I did there? Look again at my first paragraph. The craftsmanship relies, to the extent that it’s crafty, on two standard tricks. The first is repetition. Some form or other of lovemakes nine appearances, a commentary on Gladwell’s selfsame indulgence. The second is a kind of epiphany by way of callback. Early on, you learn that Gladwell loves, among other things, footnotes. Then I tell you Gladwell loves the word love so much he emphasizes it in both speech and writing. Finally, it’s revealed that the one instance of an italicized love in his new book appears, smashingly, in a footnote. A loveinside a love! Your brain, making the connection, explodes with pleasure chemicals.
That’s the hope, anyway, and one Gladwell himself depends on. Because Malcolm Gladwell, perhaps the most popular journalist-explainer of the age, has built his entire career on two simple tricks. I think you know where I’m going with this.1 Those tricks are repetitionand callback.2
Gladwell has never been shy about, nor apologized for, his method, one long rhetorical rinse/repeat. In article after article, book after book, podcast after podcast, he tells you a story about a difficult societal problem, breaks for a seemingly unrelated science lesson, and then arranges a miraculous marriage between the two. Key concepts with serious, self-dignifying names, such as «default to truth,» are glossed and invoked and rehashed so many times they accumulate near-mystical explanatory power. The payoff is often irresistible. As if from a love-match wedding, lay audiences leave a Gladwell special stirred and satisfied.
Critics and scholars, less so. Revise: phenomenally less so. To the intelligentsia, Gladwell’s an oversimplifier on his very best day; on his worst, a conspiracy-theorizing spinner of mass delusion. Whenever I told a friend or colleague that I would be reviewing his new book, I witnessed real people turn into cartoons. «HA!» one barked, before choking. «I’m so sawwy,» baby-cooed another, giving my shoulder a consoling squeeze.
None of these people listen to Revisionist History, of course, so I couldn’t ask what they thought about the two-part premiere of the new season, the podcast’s fourth. In it, Gladwell does the best Gladwell he’s ever Gladwell’d. His subject (besides himself) is no less enormous than the problem of higher education in the United States, and in 79 minutes he arrives at what he, spitting in his haters’ faces, calls his «Grand Unified Theory» for fixing it. He pals around New York City with his young assistant, Camille. He takes the LSAT. He refers time and again to the tortoise and the hare. At one point, one of his interview subjects independently references that exact fable, no prompting necessary. Gladwell practically pops. What’s happening here is undeniably special: that moment in the life cycle of every celebrity artist when a person becomes an idea.
Though the rest of season 4 can only be, and is, a protracted comedown from the premiere’s insane heights, the episodes still offer thrills. Three are about thinking like a Jesuit. («Everyone in this episode is Catholic, except me,» Gladwell says. «I’m a wannabe Catholic.») Another compares Elvis Presley to Taco Bell’s most monstrous creation, whose name Gladwell hypnotically punctuates: Naked. Chicken. Chalupa. He convenes a cultural appropriation committee (of four men). He drinks smoky teas. He descends, as he says 8 million times, into the particulars. In podcasting, Gladwell finds love, real love, a perfect medium for his madness. He gift-wraps for you a most beautiful box, the bow so neat and tidy, and who cares if there’s nothing inside but air?
As for Talking to Strangers, the new book—well, it’s exactly, exactly the same. Gladwell starts with the case of Sandra Bland, the black woman arrested by a white cop in 2015, who killed herself three days later. Societal problem, check. Then he forgets about Bland and pursues an academic interest—the Gladwellian repetition here—which is our failure to understand one another. The default-to-truth problem, the transparency problem, etc. Pop sociology thus marshalled and colored by plenty of real-life examples, he makes his return to Bland. Cue callback: There was a fundamental failure to communicate. The racial component he relegates to a few short sentences (and a footnote). Be nice to each other, «grace and humility,» the end.
Most critics, therefore, will try to sink their neurotically ground-down teeth into every bit of Gladwell’s bony, vulnerable flesh, into the specifics of his argument. They are free to gnaw.3 In truth, the only thing worth saying about the book is this: It shouldn’t have been a book at all. Spread-out, unforgiving things, books. Like all Gladwellian provocations, this argument belongs in a podcast. In fact, it already exists as one. At 42 minutes, episode 7 of season 4 is sharper on the subject of police brutality, and considerably more moving, than Strangers‘ 360 pages. Going from podcast to book is like watching a checkers master play a game of chess. Chess was his first love. He’s not bad at it. He’s just way better at checkers.
I could end the review there, but that’s not the Gladwellian way. Instead, let me take you back to the late 1920s, when a linguist by the name of Edward Sapir began spreading around the idea that the language you speak shapes the very way you see, literally see and think about, the world. If, say, your language has more words for snow than your friend’s—the famous example offered by Sapir’s student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who picked up the cause—you can actually perceive more kinds of snow. Or maybe, more magically, your language doesn’t have any words for the passage of time, so time feels constant for you, ever-happening. This became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it’s still taught in introductory psych classes everywhere (and occasionally cited by Malcolm Gladwell). When students first learn about it, their brains bubble and fizz. Light bursts forth from the heavens. It’s one of the most seductive, illuminating theories of all, ever-happening time. It explains so much. It’s also so wrong.
Malcolm Gladwell is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of people. He makes points so simple and startling you want to shout them at strangers. They may look at you funny, bark in your face, pat you on the shoulder, but at least you’re talking about ideas (and talking to strangers). The idea of linguistic relativity created whole new fields of inquiry. It did crack open the sky. What Gladwell does is not intellectual dishonesty. It’s intellectual play. He’s a thinker-tickler, no more or less. If he’s a conspiracy theorist, he’s a conspiracy theorist with a conscience, whose conspiracy is simply that people and their problems are explainable. Maybe they’re not, but at least the language he speaks imagines a better world. So many other languages these days, ones with fewer words for grace and humility, do not. Ready for the callback? Here it comes. I love—big breath—Malcolm Gladwell.
1 This being, of course, a classic Gladwellian transition—congratulating his audience for reaching the only possible (his) conclusion. People love that.
2 The italics, Gladwell’s favorite salad dressing, are especially gratuitous here.
3 As you are at my introductory paragraph, which has plenty of holes. For instance, Naked Chicken Chalupas and Dick Cavett could never be called underloved. Also, the focus of the paragraph shifts, nonsensically, from things Gladwell loves to the love a former Canadian PM has for Hitler. Finally, though he loves epic footnotes, Gladwell doesn’t write epic footnotes—weakening the capping connection on which I basically stake everything.
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