Back Bay, 2002 revision of 2000 original, 301 pages, C$21.95 pb, ISBN 0-316-34662-4
Ten years after publication, I come to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point like a teenager trying to get to a wild party the morning after: The event is over, everyone has gone home, every scrap of nourishment or entertainment has been picked clean and even those who were arrested for disorderly conduct are now home after making bail.
OK, that metaphor overextended itself, but my point is that there’s really nothing new to say about Gladwell’s book debut that hasn’t already been said by other smarter reviewers.
By now, for instance, Gladwell’s modus operandi is well-known: He will consider an off-beat idea, bolster it with anecdotes, refer to some real academic work on the subject, link it thematically to other known examples and wrap up everything in accessible, even compelling prose. Gladwell wasn’t the first socioeconomic vulgarizer, but it’s worth wondering if his popularity hasn’t been largely responsible for Freakonomics and its endless cohorts. You do feel smarter after reading Gladwell and his colleagues, but it’s never too clear if it’s just an impression.
Most of those overall qualities are obvious from his book-length debut The Tipping Point, a book that studies how an accumulation of small changes can abruptly produce a dramatic effect. Despite Gladwell’s assertions that this is a counterintuitive idea, it really isn’t new –having been enshrined in popular culture through expressions as common as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and, indeed, the “tipping point” of the title. It’s a bit of an achievement that Gladwell never once mentions catastrophe theory (“sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances”), despite decades of mathematical research in such matters. But that’s OK: Gladwell is in the business of selling books (many of them to so-called serious decision-makers), so it’s in his interest to pretend that this is all new stuff.
On his way to a demonstration of his topic, Gladwell takes many roads, many of them eloquent in the narrative power of anecdotes rather than convincing research supporting his assertions. Some scepticism, obviously, is warranted… especially in soft-science fields in which conclusive proof is so difficult to obtain. For Gladwell, data seems to be the plural of anecdotes, and the stories he chooses to illustrate his sub-theories are often so much fun to read that readers can be expected to overlook that they are merely a few successful instances of his book’s thesis. Tales in The Tipping Point include a look at the success of the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the resurgence in Hush Puppies, the Sesame Street / Blue’s Clues model of television shows and Airwalk’s destructive flirtation with mainstream success. It’s wrapped up in enough psycho-babble to convince anyone that these are examples to emulate. You can almost picture businessmen studying the book, stroking their chins and thinking Yes, this book will lead to increased sales!
But this cynical take on Gladwell’s narrative strategies minimizes the reading pleasure of his prose. His writing skills, honed after years in the newsroom, are able to grab readers’ attention quickly and guide them through a series of complex arguments. Among other successes, The Tipping Point features a crystal-clear explanation of the Broken Windows theory of social decay, and the wide variety of sub-themes is enough to make intellectually-curious readers race through the book in search of the next big memetic discovery.
I’m certainly not immune to the springboards that Gladwell builds in his book. A brief explanation of how ethics are often largely circumstantial had me thinking out loud about making a moral argument for proper planning and preparation: Someone in a hurry or without alternatives is often forced to make choices that run counter to ethics, thrift or good social graces. In this context, being prepared is one way to ensure virtuousness. (But I say this as a former Boy Scout…) Anyone reading The Tipping Point next to friends and loved one should be aware that they’re liable to keep up a stream of quotes, paraphrased ideas and grunted hunhs fit to annoy anyone within earshot.
Fortunately, it’s this quality that makes The Tipping Point such an essential read even after ten years of being picked apart by various people. It’s a fascinating launching pad for ideas of your own, it connects together different fields in fascinating ways and it remains a highly readable work of pop sociology. It’s also a great introduction to the rest of Gladwell’s work: given his pre-eminence as a public intellectual, you might as well start somewhere in reading everything he’s done, right?