The Hive

I'm just another dude with too much time on his hands. It really doesn't have anything to do with ants.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell

I'm reading a lot of Malcolm Gladwell right now. It's really good, to the point where I've actually read a few of his articles years ago, like professors gave them to our class to read, and the fact I can't remember exactly what class or prof it was for or from is frustrating me, because I remember them and want to know how they were relevant to whatever we were discussing. He writes really well. He talks about some pretty interesting things, too, and even though most of it's based around complexity/network theory without ever explicitly referencing it, it gets into a lot of the more practical applications for the theory than most of the more technical books on the subject attempt.

My only problem with him is the structure of all his New Yorker articles is identical. I could lay it out right here:

1) Start by describing the life or work or innovation of a single person, a person and work that's trivia, someone widely unknown or completely forgotten

2) Pull back to broad discussion: the context of that person's life or work or innovation, or the larger system it existed within

3) Continue that discussion, sometimes digressing to focus on another individual who made a big impact in the same area, often in a completely different manner, style, or philosophy as the original person, then working back out to the big picture

4) After talking so long about other people and huge societal ideas that we may have forgotten how the article began, swoop back to the original person, apply the conclusions we've reached in the body of the article, and conclude that, because of who that person is and the way the system around them worked, their contribution and the way it changed us was nothing short of a miracle

Traditional beginning-middle-end stuff, but the elements of drama it carries--the personal narrative to kick it off, the mano a mano of the original figure vs. the second figure (always individuals, always somehow philosophically opposed to each other), the inevitably redemptive qualities of the ending--they get a little old after a while. They're extremely effective, it's like combining what could be dry, airy intellectual subjects with the lure of fiction, the telling of a story and the clash of personalities, it's stimulating all over the place. But after reading twenty or thirty of these articles in a row, their structure's become predictable, to where those dramatic elements work against it, because I'm frustrated that I always know where I'm going to be taken next.

Admittedly, they were written as separate magazine articles, as things to be taken one at a time over the course of years, and in that context they're liable to retain their freshness for much longer than when you read them one after another on a webpage. Still, I'd hope a writer as obviously talented as Gladwell would learn to mix it up a little more.

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