“The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous… How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?”
So writes Malcolm Gladwell in a now widely cited piece about profiling for the New Yorker. He’s challenging the idea that all pitbulls are dangerous, all asian people with beards are suicide bombers, or that all single men in London who wear pointy shoes will eat pasta sludge pellets, but he might as well be talking about his own writing.
Gladwell’s articles have a particular formula. Each piece opens with a scene where he ‘shows’ rather than tells you what the piece is about. The level of vivid detail and precision is much greater than most other non-fiction writers. There will be at least one image that will remain with you throughout. In the profiling piece it’s the dog biting the child’s head and shaking it.
It’s a specific example that makes a general point. Gladwell has popularized this kind of thinking about the everyday in grand social terms, and thinking about social change in terms of the everyday. Let’s face it, we experience social change through little things. You might read research or news reports that tell you that globalisation is taking place, but you really take note when the person on the other end of the phone when you ask for train times is in India. It’s because Gladwell uses that type of anecdata that we believe him — it fits with the way we think.
In Blink he goes even further, writing about a period of just a few seconds during a bungled police operation to explain how the mind makes snap (sometimes right, sometimes wrong) judgments. He thinks those few seconds and what they tell us are important enough to write a book about. And we (the book buying public) think they’re important enough to buy millions of copies of it.
Fast Company called him ‘…a corporate sage, a 21st-century Peter Drucker’, but as an NYT profile of the frilly haired one points out, his market is much bigger than just the business shelves. He sells because in an age of information overload our demand is for meaning. Blink is about slicing information to get maximum meaning. Tipping Point is about using social networks to sell products or achieve political change. The Observer’s subhead calls Gladwell the most influential thinker for the iPod generation, and I don’t think they’re far off.
I love Gladwell’s style. There’s a hint of Dan Brown in there, lots of short sentences to reinforce messages and move things along and the use of interweaving plotlines. But unlike Dan Brown, he writes to make people think rather than just to entertain them. And I reckon making people think is a good thing.
But what if Gladwell chooses the wrong generalisation? As he becomes more and more of a phenomenon himself, it’s a high wire to tread.