hiking up mount gladwell

Have you ever read anything by Malcolm Gladwell?  He’s a writer for the New Yorker and has also written two best-selling books, Blink and The Tipping Point.  A few weeks ago, I walked into a local Barnes and Noble that had large pictures of him alongside words to the effect of, “Every so often, a writer comes along who changes the way we think.”  Ordinarily I’d say that kind of marketing is ridiculous, but in this case it might actually be true.

I happened to read two Gladwell articles months apart from each other.  One dealt with personality tests and the other dealt with ketchup.  They both struck me as really, really good.  They were packed with information, were easy to read, and made for a nuanced examination of their respective topics.  When I realized that Gladwell wrote both of them, I thought it might be worthwhile to check out some of his other writing.

Flash forward a few months, and I’ve now read all 72 articles in the archives of his website (incidentally, the two articles mentioned above are Personality Plus and The Ketchup Conundrum).  When someone asks me what he writes about, it’s hard to answer, since he seems to write about everything.  Food science, psychology, sociology, advertising, health care, pop culture, economics, plagiarism, automotive safety, plagues, famous inventors, you name it, he’s probably written something about it.  I like Gladwell because above all, he writes about ideas.

Gladwell writes his articles on the level of concepts, not mechanisms.  That’s not to say that his articles aren’t supported by truckloads of fascinating research, becasue they certainly are.  It’s just that he’s more interested in examining the assumptions and implications of, say, facial reading, rather than the precise neurology behind it.  He’s faced some criticism for his anecdotal style (some insane, some not), but his writing is so clear and inventive that it’s hard not to like. He wrote an article on surveillance and imaging (The Picture Problem) that ties together examples from, no joke, mammography and World War II bombing campaigns.

If you haven’t read any of his writing, I strongly suggest that you do.  Five thousand words on ketchup will fly by in the blink of an eye, and you’ll feel much smarter at the end of it.  Here are a few more of my favorites:


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