I don't know what to say about Malcolm Gladwell. He's an excellent writer (giving him 2 stars feels extremely harsh based on prose alone). He writes wI don't know what to say about Malcolm Gladwell. He's an excellent writer (giving him 2 stars feels extremely harsh based on prose alone). He writes with incredible enthusiasm and can make a willing reader take as much interest in the subject as Gladwell himself does. And, damn him, I think I probably agree with most of his claims. But Gladwell frustrates the hell out of me. Honestly, the way Gladwell frustrates me is as interesting to me as any of his topics. (I'd love to read Gladwell writing on what's frustrating about Gladwell.)
He's just bad at science! Such a pity - he writes about science with such love. But he makes a lot of claims with precious little data. His chapter on Korean plane crashes argues that they are caused by nuances of speaking Korean - co-pilots speak in deferential language to their superiors, and are thereby accustomed to deferring to the pilot's judgment, and don't correct piloting mistakes often enough. He seems to understand that you'd need a long chapter to argue such a claim, and he gives us the longest chapter in the book, but length != depth; he just keeps repeating data from the same few case studies. You just can't make a claim about trends in the entire Korean airline industry based on 4 or 5 crashes! He might well be right, and it's certainly a compelling narrative, but that's all it is - a narrative. There just isn't enough data, no matter how compelling a story it makes.
This may be the fundamental problem with most people's understanding of science - that what is capital-T True is whichever narrative makes the most sense to the layperson. But in science, what is True is whatever is supported by the most data. To someone that doesn't understand natural selection, intelligent design may indeed make more sense, but the better story is not necessarily truer. This is hardly Gladwell's fault, but by falling victim to it, publicly and to great popularity, he's he continues the trend. Especially aggravating since he's interviewing scientists and reading scholarly texts - how, in all that, did he miss such a core scientific concept?
There is a passage in this book where a scientist tells Gladwell that two different datasets, when graphed, are very similar, and Gladwell pipes in to say that the scientist is not telling us they are related, he's telling is they're the same. And no - no he's not. To sets of data that match up on a graph are not necessarily related at all - remember those folks who think that ozone holes (or whatever) are caused by the rings of Saturn (or whatever) because they follow a similar pattern. Gladwell has essentially argued that correlation is causation - a very serious, if common, logical fallacy.
Gladwell's core idea that breakaway success is almost always an outlier, a confluence of very rare opportunities and lucky breaks, is an important one, and I was happy to be exposed to it. I'm still not sure what his point was. It reads like he thinks it's inspiring, that successful people are not specialer than us, just lucky. But, then, isn't that all the more disheartening? That you cannot be the next Bill Gates? That Bill Gates is only Bill Gates because he was born in a specific place at a specific epoch, and if you're not in the same circumstances it will never happen to you? That second idea isn't irreconcilable with the first, but Gladwell doesn't even engage with it. Instead, he ends with an anecdotal story about his mother, which is very beautifully written, but proves nothing.
So: great writer, great ideas, many of them probably right - but the truths Gladwell is getting at are probably larger and more complex than he realizes. There are probably a lot of causes of plane crashes in Korean airlines, and while Korean culture may be part of it, it's possibly a very small part. Without more info, Malcolm, we just don't know.
(But, thanks to this book, I heard about Anette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, which offers all the depth about schools and poverty and race that were left out of Gladwell's corresponding chapter. More dryly written, but just infinitely more substantial - and substantiated.)...more
Mary Roach definitely favors breadth over depth, but that's the tradeoff, isn't it? I didn't leave this book feeling like I could have a deep conversaMary Roach definitely favors breadth over depth, but that's the tradeoff, isn't it? I didn't leave this book feeling like I could have a deep conversation about any one of its topics, but man I have some killer conversation starters now. Roach is funny enough - the jokes are rarely hilarious but they keep the tone amusing - and she knows how to make a lot of science fun and engaging. Left me hungry for harder science, but that's what the bibliography's for. I'd consider this a good 101 course - like, really good for a 101....more
It's hard to find a book that talks about your troubles without trying to cure you. Artists have trouble making art - surely this is interesting as, yIt's hard to find a book that talks about your troubles without trying to cure you. Artists have trouble making art - surely this is interesting as, you know, a topic, not only as a pathology. So thank goodness this isn't a self-help book. There are enough self-help books. It's just what it says: observations. Helpful? Probably. I know it got me thinking about a lot of things. I'm just glad I didn't get pathologized. If you're interesting in what it's like being an artist, whether you're an artist or aren't, consider this a high recommendation....more
Meant to read this for a while. I think it was stopping by Occupy Boston that made me check it out again. I've always loved the way Orwell writes nonfMeant to read this for a while. I think it was stopping by Occupy Boston that made me check it out again. I've always loved the way Orwell writes nonfiction - I like 1984 as much as the next person, but I love Orwell's essays and Down and Out in Paris and London even more. He's such a clear speaker, and he always thinks very deeply on his subjects.
Down And Out would go through several chapters of straight storytelling, talking about his personal experiences, and then throw in a chapter now and then explaining what his experiences mean on the societal scale - this book is the same. So you end up with a book that is, in structure, a story from the trenches, written by a volunteer in the anti-Fascist army during the Spanish Civil War. But you also have a book about what a war feels like day by day (not glamorous), and about the ways the worker's revolution turned into trading a brutal Fascist for friendlier Fascists, and about the character of Spain in the 1930's, and about media distortions. It's rather the holistic approach - to talk about the Spanish Civil war, you must also talk about the entire world of 1937.
Incredibly well-researched and well-supported. Most books I've read on poverty have felt very entry-level, broad but not deep. This was intermediate sIncredibly well-researched and well-supported. Most books I've read on poverty have felt very entry-level, broad but not deep. This was intermediate study - the kind of book you read with two bookmarks, because endnotes! Lareau is still an intelligent and eloquent writer, so the going never feels like a slog. The final chapter is maybe the best exploration I've read into what, systemically, makes the poor stay poor in the modern age, and how it got to be that way.
3 out of 5 stars is rounding up. Sacks is a talented and insightful writer, and much of the contents of this book are fascinating, but it's also very3 out of 5 stars is rounding up. Sacks is a talented and insightful writer, and much of the contents of this book are fascinating, but it's also very repetitive, going over material from Sacks' earlier books, and even from earlier chapters, as if this were a collection of independent articles, which it might well have been. I would happily read Sacks again, but by the end this book became a slog. It's really just an endless string of anecdotes, many of them only tangentially related to music....more
Haven't found many other books on writing that were actually useful, but, then, Delany never writes shallowly (or briefly) about any topic. I'd call iHaven't found many other books on writing that were actually useful, but, then, Delany never writes shallowly (or briefly) about any topic. I'd call it necessary for any serious writer. (If you're a farmer, I hope you find the act of writing reeeeeeeaaaaally interesting.) He (naturally) finds opportunities to talk about secular meaning in The Book Of Genesis and to expound about Wagner, and like always it's just goddamn fascinating. But he also talks, in a way writers never do, about what the day-to-day act of writing is, and why it's hard to write about. He talks about what, psychologically, a story is, and how the brain processes one. He talks about the values and limits of art, and about measuring success and failure of experimental writing, and what it takes to be a writer. He'll also lay out the writer's tools, grammar and syntax, in the appendix.
Graduate-level. Not for high-schoolers. But brilliant as always....more
Let's be honest: some chunks of this book are just tiresome. Many of the short essays, mini-satires originally from The Beast, that are collected betwLet's be honest: some chunks of this book are just tiresome. Many of the short essays, mini-satires originally from The Beast, that are collected between the longer sections, are throw-aways, though funny enough. I'll admit to finally skipping some in the second half. But the longer sections are not just smart, and not just funny - the longer sections are important. The first essay, about the wild under-counting of an anti-war protest (especially in light of the more recent over-counting of the Restoring Honor Rally) is valuable and disturbing, as is his campaign reporting on Howard Dean and the Democratic primaries (which involves hallucinogens and a Viking costume).
But the long-form essay Bush Like Me, where he goes undercover as a Republican on the Bush campaign in Florida, is one of the most important essays on American politics I've ever read. Liberal America doesn't understand what conservatives think , nor why we can't seem to beat them in politics. Our stereotypes of the inbred redneck or the wealthy and evil CEO aren't as damaging as their stereotypes of the welfare queen or the sex-crazed hippie, but they're no more sophisticated. Taibbi's portrait of how the conservative mind operates is often vicious, but weirdly empathetic, and it exposes a lot of the ways the Democratic party is woefully ineffectual, no matter how good its intentions.
For that essay alone, it'd be worth reading. But it's also very funny, and provides a good dissection of how the media works in relation to politics (hint: not very well). Makes ya want to write articles....more