This year I hit a string of bad luck, and ended up putting down most of the books I’d started. Over the years, I’ve really forced myself to finish anything I’d already gotten about 10 percent into, but now I have 2 kids, I was moving homes, and sometimes I just couldn’t take it any more.
But there were a few that stuck with me…
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James
This is often long-winded and obtuse, but he has assembled and pretty interesting collection of 20th-century personalities to create a narrative of cultural advancement. I’d never heard of most of these people, and it is interesting to meet them via his very subjective biographical snap shots.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
The further I get away from this book the more I suspect that very few of the arguments actually hold water. The primary reason The Beatles were great was because they had the opportunity to practice a lot? Really? But it’s the actual constructing of the arguments and narratives that’s pretty entertaining and makes it worth the read. The section on plane crashes is great.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This is from my series of self-help books last summer. Anyone looking at my list of recently-read books in August might’ve started wondering if I was about to swan dive off the George Washington Bridge. I wasn’t…I was just doing a little “house keeping” as Sam Harris (author of a lesser one I read, Waking Up, would say). Thinking, Fast and Slow does the satisfying (and wildly over-simplifying) work of categorizing the methods by which humans process information into 2 categories, “fast” and “slow” (“System 1″ and “System 2.” My “fast” reaction to this book was “wow that’s really simple…that’s really, really simple…yeah that’s too simple;” but my “slow” reaction was “it definitely rings right that my own well-considered, calculated, and contrived responses to problems have, not infrequently, set me way back in the wrong direction.” Trust your instincts!…or trust them sometimes.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat
How many times can you repeat the same thing over and over in one book? Either James Barrat was toying with this in some kinda post-modern machine-esque tone, or James Barrat is himself some sort of artificial intelligence, still working out a few glitches. Either way, this has a classic doomsday forecast that you can’t help but linger on after reading…When are machines going to surpass human intelligence and thus find us not merely expendable, but too unpredictable to bother keeping around? It’s only logical. It’s also complete fantasy…but it’s kinda fun. (I stole this book from a band mate on tour…sorry, Greg.)
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In his 2004 New Yorker article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Jim Wigon, a hapless food entrepreneur trying to market his gourmet brand of World’s Best ketchup against the Heinz ketchup juggernaut. “He starts with red peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, and a high-end tomato paste,” Gladwell writes of Wigon’s rebel ketchup recipe.
Basil is chopped by hand, because the buffalo chopper bruises the leaves. He uses maple syrup, not corn syrup, which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz. He pours his ketchup into a clear glass ten-ounce jar, and sells it for three times the price of Heinz, and for the past few years he has crisscrossed the country, peddling World’s Best in six flavors – regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil – to specialty grocery stores and supermarkets.
Despite all this loving attention to culinary detail, Gladwell tells us, Wigon is destined to fail because unlike the many varieties of mustard and other food products whose popularity skews widely among different palates, Heinz ketchup is that near perfect food, balancing the five major taste areas – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and beloved by toddlers so famously averse to trying new foods.
“The Ketchup Conundrum” is itself the Heinz ketchup of magazine feature articles: a near perfect example of the form, balancing wit, erudition, good reporting, vivid characters, and terrific storytelling to explore a conundrum so glaring you never thought to wonder about it. Journalism like this made Gladwell famous, but Gladwell himself has more or less stopped doing this kind of journalism. In the case of “The Ketchup Conundrum,” he asked a great question and found a bunch of smart, quirky experts to help him answer it. In his latest book, David and Goliath, out this week, he appears to have started with an answer and then gone looking for people to prove him right. All too often these days, the same thing happens when he contributes articles to the New Yorker.
In David and Goliath, as in his earlier books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, Gladwell displays a fondness for the classical essay form: He begins with an introduction followed by an explicit thesis statement, then sets out to prove his case with evidence, typically a variety of wildly divergent case studies taken from history or contemporary life larded with statistics and findings from economics and the social sciences. This structure suits Gladwell’s purpose, first, because it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a college composition course, and second, because the form, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, carries with it a veneer of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
The thesis of David and Goliath, a book about the limits of power and the power of limitations, is as follows: “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” As is often the case, Gladwell works up to this carefully, as if he were about to argue that, No, in fact the earth is flat, but his assertion is not as counter-intuitive as he seems to think. Any American who grew up during or shortly after the Vietnam War – which is to say, the great majority of Gladwell’s readers – will surely recognize that a small, determined foe can quite often defeat a larger, lumbering opponent. But given our recent history of military misadventures and fiscal hubris, perhaps it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
In his first chapter, adapted from a 2009 New Yorker article, Gladwell follows a team of twelve-year-old “little blond girls” from Silicon Valley, who despite having little to no basketball experience, end up at a national championship tournament. Their coach, Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born software engineer who has himself never played basketball, is appalled by the way American teams play the game, retreating back to their half of the court after each basket, thereby ceding three-quarters of the court to their opponents. If his team of inexperienced non-athletes plays this way, which reinforces the strengths of the better players, Ranadivé knows they will lose. So instead they play a full-court press, contesting all ninety-four feet of the court, and begin steamrolling far more talented opponents.
The chapter allows Gladwell to offer a deft demonstration of how culture can unwittingly favor the powerful – how else to explain why even losing teams cede three-quarters of the court to more talented foes? – but also a neat parable of why hard-working immigrants have done so well in American universities and in Silicon Valley. Gladwell is too subtle a writer to spell this out, but it is clear that Ranadivé’s bafflement with the traditional way of playing basketball and his emphasis on relentless physical conditioning to wear out opponents is of a piece with his success in the software business.
Gladwell takes this lovely little story and runs with it, setting the tale of Ranadivé’s unlikely basketball stars alongside a history of Lawrence of Arabia’s use of guerrilla tactics to help his ragtag force of Bedouin tribesmen to defeat a larger, better-armed Turkish Army during World War I. Combining these cases, Gladwell shows not only why underdog strategies work, but also why so few underdogs try them: “Underdog strategies are hard.” To win, underdogs have to reconceptualize the task before them in ways that play to their strengths, take huge risks, and work harder than their opponents. Most people – Gladwell doesn’t say it, but it’s clear we are meant to read: most lazy, overprivileged Americans – prefer to lose easy than to win hard.
But from this point on, things go downhill, fast. In chapter after chapter, Gladwell cherry-picks data, uses results from one set of circumstances to draw unsupported conclusions about other sets of circumstances, soft pedals counter-explanations, and sets up false comparisons. Early on, for instance, he compares a young woman who drops out of a highly competitive science program at an Ivy League school to the difficulties faced by Impressionist painters trying to gain respect from the French art establishment, arguing that, in both cases, those involved suffered from being small fish in a big pond.
I would never suggest, as Gladwell does, that a student aim one rung lower than she is qualified for to avoid feeling overwhelmed by her fellow students, but at least that’s an argument one can make. But one can’t argue that the Impressionists suffered because they couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to their work. It’s simply not true. As Gladwell himself notes, when Edouard Manet’s painting of a prostitute, titled Olympia, was displayed in 1865 at the famous Salon held every year at the Palais de l’Industrie, it “sent all of Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay.” The Impressionists weren’t small fish in a big pond; they were blowing up the pond.
But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”
He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
I began David and Goliath more or less ignoring Gladwell’s preface dealing with the Biblical story of the battle between the lowly shepherd and the mighty Philistine. His pseudoscientific take on the tale is absurd even by Gladwellian standards, rife with wild suppositions treated as accepted fact. But I ended the book sensing that Gladwell’s choice to begin the book this way is telling. For one thing, it’s ur-Gladwell. Over and over in his books and New Yorker pieces, he portrays himself as a nettlesome outsider, a sort of notepad-wielding shepherd boy flinging stones – odd facts, little-known studies, startling graphs, moving stories – at a world of oafish Philistines who don’t understand the quirky counter-intuitiveness of it all.
More important, though, it helped me see that despite his classical essay structure and all the charts and graphs and interviews with eminent scientists, Gladwell isn’t interested in science. He isn’t interested in facts. He’s interested in stories. Gladwell’s books shouldn’t be read as arguments based in evidence, but as parables based in neo-liberal orthodoxy. One can’t read David and Goliath, particularly the later chapters dealing with the overreach of entrenched power, without thinking of the Bush years, of the War on Terror and Gitmo, of mortgage-backed securities and Lehman Brothers, of “Mission Accomplished” and Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora. Gladwell never takes any of these subjects on directly, but David and Goliath often reads as one long parable against the folly of ignoring the limits of American might and power. And I agree with him. But I want to be right because I’m actually right, not because the guys on my side are better at telling stories. Stories are easy. Facts are hard. I want facts.