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Three Important Books to Read by Malcolm Gladwell


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Amazon.com Review

“The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, “is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.” Although anyone familiar with the theory of memetics will recognize this concept, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has quite a few interesting twists on the subject.For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanize the forces of resistance so effectively in part because he was what Gladwell calls a “Connector”: he knew just about everybody, particularly the revolutionary leaders in each of the towns that he rode through. But Revere “wasn’t just the man with the biggest Rolodex in colonial Boston,” he was also a “Maven” who gathered extensive information about the British. He knew what was going on and he knew exactly whom to tell. The phenomenon continues to this day–think of how often you’ve received information in an e-mail message that had been forwarded at least half a dozen times before reaching you.

Gladwell develops these and other concepts (such as the “stickiness” of ideas or the effect of population size on information dispersal) through simple, clear explanations and entertainingly illustrative anecdotes, such as comparing the pedagogical methods of Sesame Street andBlue’s Clues, or explaining why it would be even easier to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with the actor Rod Steiger. Although some readers may find the transitional passages between chapters hold their hands a little too tightly, and Gladwell’s closing invocation of the possibilities of social engineering sketchy, even chilling, The Tipping Point is one of the most effective books on science for a general audience in ages. It seems inevitable that “tipping point,” like “future shock” or “chaos theory,” will soon become one of those ideas that everybody knows–or at least knows by name. –Ron Hogan

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Amazon.com Review

Blink is about the first two seconds of looking–the decisive glance that knows in an instant. Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling. Building his case with scenes from a marriage, heart attack triage, speed dating, choking on the golf course, selling cars, and military maneuvers, he persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of “thin slices” of behavior. The key is to rely on our “adaptive unconscious”–a 24/7 mental valet–that provides us with instant and sophisticated information to warn of danger, read a stranger, or react to a new idea.Gladwell includes caveats about leaping to conclusions: marketers can manipulate our first impressions, high arousal moments make us “mind blind,” focusing on the wrong cue leaves us vulnerable to “the Warren Harding Effect” (i.e., voting for a handsome but hapless president). In a provocative chapter that exposes the “dark side of blink,” he illuminates the failure of rapid cognition in the tragic stakeout and murder of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. He underlines studies about autism, facial reading and cardio uptick to urge training that enhances high-stakes decision-making. In this brilliant, cage-rattling book, one can only wish for a thicker slice of Gladwell’s ideas about what Blink Camp might look like. –Barbara Mackoff

Outliers: The Story of Success

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, November 2008: Now that he’s gotten us talking about the viral life of ideas and the power of gut reactions, Malcolm Gladwell poses a more provocative question in Outliers: why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential? Challenging our cherished belief of the “self-made man,” he makes the democratic assertion that superstars don’t arise out of nowhere, propelled by genius and talent: “they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” Examining the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, “some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.”

Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots’ culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there’s more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples–and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the reasons for school achievement gaps–Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways privilege manifests in our culture. He leaves us pondering the gifts of our own history, and how the world could benefit if more of our kids were granted the opportunities to fulfill their remarkable potential. —Mari Malcolm

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