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Unread May 16th, 2009, 08:59 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
Join Date: Jul 2004
Posts: 174
Thumbs up Gladwell: Jack-Out-Of-The-Box (Weekly Standard)

I thought this Joseph Epstein review of Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) was a good (largely critical) review of Malcolm Gladwell's books in general. Gladwell is a very entertaining but glib popular science writer who tends to take very interesting points way beyond their usefulness by ignoring the inconvenient details of his topics and focusing on cute, compelling anecdotes.

... Explanation of the kind that Malcolm Gladwell specializes in is evidently reassuring. The point of explanation is to make the world seem more intelligible. T.S. Eliot said that humankind cannot bear too much reality, but in a secular age it seems able to stand mystery even less. In his books Gladwell nicely eases the mystery out of life by informing his readers how, as he understands it, the world really works: And it works, if he is to be believed, quite rationally, if one will only stop and think about it. The happy news is, if you find Gladwell's various explanations persuasive, not only are the clouds of mystery gone but the sunshine of infinite promise glows in the sky high above. Everything depends, of course, on whether you find his explanations genuinely persuasive.

The Gladwellian method is by now well established, if not formulaic. He takes a received opinion--the superiority of young Chinese at mathematics, say--sets out the conventional wisdom on the subject, and then refutes this wisdom with the aid of anecdotes backed up by one or another social-scientific study. Gladwell does social science--second-hand social science, really--with a twist: The twist is that he uses it inevitably to supply happy endings. Attend to his instruction and you, too, can spot trends, think more clearly under pressure, and now, with Outliers, increase your chances to achieve an impressive success.

... Too frequently one reads Gladwell's anecdotes, case studies, potted social-science research and thinks: interesting if true. Yet one feels naggingly doubtful about its truth quotient. So much Gladwell writes that is true seems not new, and so much he writes that is new seems untrue. Preponderantly, what he reports feels more like half- and quarter-truths, because they do not pass the final truth test about human nature: They rarely, that is, honor the complexity of life.
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Unread May 19th, 2009, 10:54 AM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Philadelphia area
Posts: 1,143
Talking Contra Gladwell: Babel Excerpt

Thanks Todd for prompting me! Debates continue about the relative importance of environments and genes. And it’s fairly easy for a female-genomic to gain audience by means of stories. As Roger Sperry once remarked, society really does reflect a war between our story teller (our left cortex), and our right, and our silent drivers in our cerebellum and brainstem.

This excerpt from Babel is one of my favorites because of the subject, the way Babel tells his story, and the translation. Examine this work closely and find also lessons of genetics and the emergent outcomes as genes seek, arrange, and magnify environments, even by extension through a family of what appears to be individuals. And you will notice that Babel, ordered to practice his violin, read Russian novels while he fiddled. Babel’s essay also makes a useful counter to some of Gladwell’s thoughts on the importance of practicing your craft for 10,000 hours. After all, only some children tolerate and seek 10,000 hours of practice at nearly anything but the Darwinian things of sex and aggression…

From the section called “Stories, 1925-1938,” set in Odesa.**

p. 604-605: “Like all Jews, I was short in stature, weak, and plagued by headaches from too much study. My mother could see this clearly. She had never been blinded by her husband’s destitute pride and his incomprehensible belief that our family would one day be stronger and richer than other people in this world. She did not foresee any success for us, was frightened of buying a school uniform ahead of time, and only acceded to my having my picture taken by a portrait photographer.

“On September 20, 1905, a list of all those who had managed o enter the first class was posted outside the lycée. My name was on that list. My whole family went to look at this piece of paper-even Grandpa Shoyl, my great-uncle, went to the lycée. I loved this braggart of an old man because he sold fish in the market. His fat hands were moist, covered with fish scales, and reeked of wonderful, cold worlds…So even foolish Shoyl went to the lycée to read the list that had my name on it, and in the evening he danced and stamped his feet at our beggarly feast.”

P 628: “Our fathers, seeing they had no prospects of their own, set up a lottery for themselves. They built this lottery on the bones of their little children. Odessa was in the grip of this craze more than any other town. And sure enough, over the last few decades our town had sent a number of child prodigies onto the stages of the world. Mischa Elman, Zimabalist, Gawrilowitsch all came from Odessa-Jascha Heifetz started out with us.***…There was powerful harmony in the souls of these little creatures with their swollen blue heads. They became acclaimed virtuosi. And so-my father decided to keep up with them.

P 629: “I was brought to Zagursky. Out of respect for my grandfather, he agreed to take me at a ruble a lesson--a low fee. My grandfather was the laughing stock of the town, but also its ornament. He walked the streets n a top hat and tattered shoes, and provided answers to the murkiest questions. People asked him what a Gobelin was, why the Jacobins had betrayed Robespierre, how synthetic silk was made, what a cesarean section was. My grandfather knew the answers to all these questions. It was out of respect for his knowledge and madness that Zagursky charged us only a ruble a lesson. And he put a lot of effort into me, fearing Grandfather, though putting any effort into me was pointless. Sounds scraped out of my violin like iron filings.

“But I had other things in my head. Whenever I practiced my violin I placed books by Turgenev or Dumas on my music stand, and, as I scraped away, devoured one page after another. During the day I told stories to the neighborhood boys, at night I put them down on paper. Writing was a hereditary occupation in our family. Grandpa Levy-Itskhok, who had gone mad in his old age, had spent his life writing a novel with the title The Headless Man. I followed in his footsteps.

“Laden with violin case and music scores, I dragged myself over to Zagursky’s on Witte Street, formerly Dvoryanskaya Street. There, along the walls, Jewesses sat, waiting flushed and hysterical for their turn. They pressed to their weak knees violins more magnificent than those destined to play at Buckingham Palace.

“The door of the inner sanctum opened. Large-headed, freckled children came bustling out of Zagursky’s chamber, their necks thin as flower stalks, a convulsive flush in their cheeks. Then the door closed and swallowed up the next dwarf. In the adjacent room Zagursky, with his red curls, bow tie, and thin legs, sang and conducted in ecstasy. The founder of this freakish lottery filled the Modavanka and the back alleys of the old bazaar with specters of pizzicato and cantilena….

“I had no business being a member of his sect. I too was a dwarf just as they were, but I heard a different calling in the voice of my ancestors.”

Babel was charged with espionage and executed at 1:40 A.M. January 26, 1940 by a Bolshevik firing squad. He was forty-five and pleaded, “Let me finish my work.“ His wife and his daughter, Nathalie, had escaped to Paris. Babel, obviously, was more sensitive to his writing than to the sensitivities of some he described. His work and even proof of his existence disappeared until 1954. Nathalie then assembled and edited this collection (1072 pages) of her father’s war stories and childhood memories.

Babel, Nathalie (2002) Editor. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel. NY: Norton.
See also Gladwell, M (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success. NY: Little Brown.

** Ukrainian spelling: Russians, Poles, and mad Englishmen use “Odessa.”

*** All among the foremost violinists and conductors of the twentieth century.

Last edited by James Brody; May 21st, 2009 at 01:40 PM.
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