I assume that almost everyone has heard of Malcom Gladwell and many people have read him by now. His first hit book, Tipping Point, introduced the two word phrase into wide usage. In fact, are we at the tipping point on the use of tipping point? Almost everything, it seems, can be characterized as having reached the tipping point. Enough already. (I like the phrase critical mass better, but, hey, thatís just me.)
His latest book out in quality paper right now is What The Dog Saw. I have read most of it, skipping around to whatever article appealed at the moment. The essays/stories were first published in The New Yorker, but picking up the book is like watching the reruns of a favorite series on television: you donít have to wait for the next episode. Just dive right in and enjoy yourself.
I can say without a doubt that virtually all of the essays are a delight to read. They generally fall under the heading of things are not what they seem, whether it be homelessness, breast cancer detection and treatment, misdeeds by the Enron crew or how to get dogs to behave. They could also be characterized by saying what we think we know, we donít really know. Gladwell compiles recent innovations in research or critical thinking that show us there is a lot more below the surface than we realize.
The other message of this book, which is one of my pet theories, is that we know how to solve complex problems, but we, collectively or politically, refuse to take appropriate action. For example, studies show that homelessness is not a widespread problem, but rather, in the main, a temporary problem that most people facing it resolve rather quickly (they have no other choice). The wider problem is actually smaller than most of us ever thought: a limited group of chronic homeless, mainly men, who are involved in substance abuse and, most cases, petty crime who cost all of us millions of dollars for emergency medical care, incarceration, ambulance service and police time. The solution, which would save the country hundreds of millions of dollars, is to resolve homelessness for as many of the chronic street people as possible, thereby eliminating the cost of all those emergency ambulance runs and treatment.
Lucky for me and others, while Gladwell touches on many different subjects and provides a good view of potential solutions, he misses some of the larger, more overarching points. He is a story teller for The New Yorker, and as such has to be dedicated to that particular mission. He has to make sure he gets the narrative into his essays. The fields he has plowed are thus ripe for others to come along and flesh out the larger picture. There are some big issues alluded to in these pages, but not revealed completely and the alert reader will likely pick up on more than a few. Gladwell is content with his smaller, revelatory breakthroughs, which leaves room for someone else to come along and grab the gold (as he himself did with Tipping Point).
If you havenít read this book, do so. It is a good addition to anyoneís library We have few thinkers working in the crosswinds of science, research, and political/social problems and Gladwell performs a valuable service. One underlying message of this book is that the old left/right divide of politics is useless in getting problems solved and, in fact, acts as barrier to taking effective action. Gladwell doesnít say that, but I do.
Whatever you take away from this book, it is filled to revelations about our national problems and a clear idea that we can accomplish what needs to be done. We have entered a political phase where it is more important to fight with each other than it is to seek solutions. When you begin to understand that something better is within our grasp, then the political roadblocks become unacceptable, regardless of which side is throwing them in our way.
Doug Terry, 4.2.11