Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell on rereading

I hate rereading, rewatching, and in some ways, relistening. I can count on one hand the number of books I have read multiple times, by choice, and chalk up my inability to quote movies to the fact that it is a rare movie indeed that I give multiple viewings. Songs I love will get cut from playlists mere months later. This stems mostly, I think, from a recognition that there is an endless supply of reading and watching and listening material, and that I’d like to get through as much of it as possible.

Malcolm Gladwell disagrees:

Re-reading is much underrated. I’ve read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold once every five years since I was 15. I only started to understand it the third time.

This is from a series of quippy points in The Guardian from Gladwell, most recently seen questioning the value of spies. I can see the value of rereading, but I’m not sure I’ll end up using my limited amount of time to do any more of it.

Football is bad for you. Real bad.

About a month ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about football in The New Yorker. I haven’t commented on it here, but I choose to do so now for two reasons. First, the article changed the way I watched football. If you want to hate yourself for watching football, read this. If you have a boyfriend you want to stop watching football, have him read this. A sample:

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

It’s an incredibly damning portrait of a vicious game that, the article tells us, was once nearly banned by no less a manly-man than Teddy Roosevelt. The whole thing’s here.

But we’re not here to talk football, we’re here to talk story-telling. which brings us to a profile in GQ magazine on the same topic released at nearly the same time. It tells the story of one doctor, Bennet Omalu, and his struggle to have brain damage taken seriously by the NFL:

Nothing was welcoming, nothing was collegial, about the NFL’s reaction to Omalu’s article that appeared in the July 2005 edition of Neurosurgery. In a lengthy letter to the editor, three scientists, all of whom were on the NFL payroll, said they wanted Omalu’s article retracted.

“We disagree,” they said.

“Serious flaws.”

“Complete misunderstanding.”

The scientists, Ira Casson, Elliot Pellman, and David Viano, were all members of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee. In tone their letter to the editor struggled to remain calm, but everyone could read the subtext: We own this field. We are not going to bow to some no-name Nigerian with some bullshit theory.

The article, by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is a classic little-guy-fights-the-big-dogs story. She peppers it with detailed accounts of brain damaged football players committing suicide. A stressed out Omalu drinking Johnny Walker Red. Death threats. Classics of the narrative journalism form.

Yet Gladwell’s article has gotten gobs more attention, for a couple of reasons. First, it was written by Malcolm Gladwell. Second – and this shakes my faith in the already limited power of narrative journalism – Gladwell’s non-narrative is just more compelling than Laskas’ narrative. In Laskas’ piece, we get bogged down in the inside baseball of the NFL, the politics of the medical research world, the stories of individual athletes. Gladwell’s story is simply a blunt explanation of just how screwed up the very idea of football is. And for that, it’s impact is much greater.

Gladwell’s writing style, and his logic, often irk me. But in this case – and in many others, as this article points out – he’s found the secret formula for making a persuasive argument.

This Week’s Best Profile

Whatever you think of Malcolm Gladwell’s rise as a business guru, the man could turn out a magazine profile back in the day. Here he’s profiling the greatest TV pitchman of all time. It’s not Billy Mays, but Ron Popeil, creator of “the finest kitchen appliance ever made,” the Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ:

If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial. He would have also change the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial. The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.) The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door – it would be out in plain view just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn. The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. And would it be a slender black, low-profile box? Of course not. Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility. Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and translucent swirl, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color, and it would sit on top of the television, not below it, so that when your neighbor or your friend came over he would spot it immediately and say, “Wow, you have one of those Ronco Tape-O-Matics!”

Read the whole thing here.  Hat tip to Kevin.

Full-court press

So Malcolm Gladwell writes about basketball – and other things – in this week’s New Yorker. With lots of exclamation points! His thesis, reasonable enough: too many Davids try to beat Goliath at his own game, when their best chance of success hinges out outhinking and outworking their opponents. His primary example is, well, 7th grade girls basketball:

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle.

I don’t have a problem with Gladwell’s point (though it seems pretty self-evident to me). But I’m not sure proving that 12-year old girls – not to mention 12-year old boys – can’t handle a full-court press is the most effective way to prove any point.