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Into the cauldron with it

11 Jan 11 | Re: Sort of sociology book or whatever it is

A good friend lent me the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. We’re still friends, but I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading that dad-gum awful book.

Ostensibly, this is a book about what exactly it is that makes super-successful people, like Bill Gates and a bunch of other guys who no one has heard of, the massive cheeses they turn out to be. Gladwell’s jaw-dropping conclusion is that they are lucky enough to get great life opportunities which they then seize, that they have lots of innate ability, and of course that they all work terribly, terribly hard (Gladwell lives in America).

To give an example: if you want to become a top corporate lawyer, you just have to follow these steps that Gladwell has identified: time-travel back to 1932, be born and get brought up in the right kind of Jewish family so that you can go to Harvard but then get rejected by all the top law firms by discrimination. Then join a rubbish law firm, get involved in corporate takeovers, do a bunch of other stuff and blah blah blah hard work and before you know it you will be the best, richest and most hated lawyer in New York. Thanks for the insight, Malcolm!

So the supposed thesis of the book is both exceedingly obvious and utterly useless. But - phew! (but only for a minute) - that isn’t actually what this book is about. Some people just love reading about really big powerful engines in big muscle cars. Yeah! Big engines! Gladwell is a bit like those people, except he just loves reading and writing about really rich, successful, powerful people. He loves finding out all the details of their lives, what their suits are like, where their offices are, and lots of little quirky details from the histories of these supermen (and they are all men) who we all wish we were like. Unfortunately, I find that about as interesting and intellectually satisfying as I would a great big picture book of monster trucks.

If you show me someone who reads mainly biographies, I’ll show you a bore. If those biographies are all of American Dream-type people like John D Rockafeller and Ronald Reagan then Lord help us. But Gladwell seems to lack the stamina to bore on about one person for a whole book, so he bores on no less boringly about a succession of (superficially) different US worthies. The result: a book that can’t pretend to be authoritative like a biography, hence the need for a tissue-thin unifying thesis like the one I mention above.

I do concede that there is the odd interesting fact in this book, but they are all overstated and wildly extrapolated from, using surely cherry-picked figures in a bold challenge to actual science or research (he even bangs on at length about the discredited 1950s fad IQ). Yes it is sort of interesting that most ice hockey players are born near the start of the year. No this does not mean that if there was a separate ice hockey league for children born from August onwards there would be twice as many ice hockey stars. For that to happen, people would simply have to get twice as interested in ice hockey.

Little cocktail-onion talking points aside, and disregarding the conclusion beamed down from Planet Obvious, all the book gives you are pointless attempts to track the tiny little events and situations that supposedly shaped the lives of some rich businessmen. As BBC2’s Who Do You Think You Are has shown us, lots of people have some quirky story about their ancestors, but few of them are genuinely interesting to anyone but the individuals concerned. Gladwell even gives us his own non-notable origins story in the last (and best, because shortest) chapter. But I don’t care about any of it. I don’t care about the distant causes. I don’t need to know how everything joins up together. What is it Roberto Bolaño said about the best writer in the world?

The way the stories followed one another didn’t lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbours, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely.

That is not how Gladwell writes. He wants to see to the bottom of the cauldron, so he keeps dropping in little tiny crumbs of tofu. But the cauldron foams too fiercely - and that’s how I like it. If you want a superficial precis of how some unpleasant people got a sack of money that you won’t be able to get, read Outliers, if you can stand the endless popgun barrage of short-sentence trivia. If you want something truly awe-inspiring, the boiling cauldron of unconnected events, read Bolaño’s 2666. All of it. Immediately. Get it from an airport bookshop.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Available from Smith’s on buy one get one half price. Rating: 2 out of 10

Posted by KNOCKER LEWIS at 18:37

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