”There's a school of thought that runs something like this: the average US citizen isn't very bright, has a limited attention span, and has an appetite only for the superficial. So if you want to write a book about something you feel to be important, you have to sugar the pill - with lots and lots of sugar and make sure it's a very small pill indeed.
Hence the style "American-Folksy." In this genre the author leads the reader gently along by means of first-person narrative, tons of anecdote, and just the gentlest hint of new information here and there. The lexicon is undemanding and the pace is calculated to be just brisk enough to prevent the onset of catatonia while being leisurely enough not to require any strenuous intellectual activity on the part of the reader. It's basically DisneyWords.
This is a well-tried genre used across a wide variety of subjects. In Search of Excellence and The Omnivore's Dilemma both use the same style despite their contexts being very different. And Weiner uses American-Folksy here for precisely the same reasons and to precisely the same effect. The purpose of American-Folksy is to take something that could have made a somewhat interesting 6-page monograph and stretch it out into a book-length peregrination.”
I would buy them, read them, learn from them, but be frustrated I spent that time and only really got one nugget from the book.
Then I became an adjunct professor. Teaching in my first course, I noticed that even the brightest students would ask me to go over content again with additional examples and it brought me back to these debates about Gladwell's books.
I decided to split my class in half, into group A and group B and run an experiment (that wouldn't impact the student's marks).
For Group A, I would give a detailed two hour breakdown of "Topic #1" explaining each element of it carefully and slowly. For "Topic #2", I would give only a thirty minute breakdown of the topic comprised of three anecdotes applying the topic.
For Group B, I would give the detailed two hour breakdown on "Topic #2" and the thirty minute anecdote series on "Topic #1".
Then I quizzed them.
Both groups performed better on the anecdote topics by a fairly significant margin, and not only had the class average performed better, but, I found that many individuals who often struggled on tests were performing FAR above their averages.
When I look back to the business concepts I remember, it's never long convoluted blog posts, or books covering an array of concepts. It's ideas that can be expressed in a few words (Jelly Effect, Tipping Point, Purple Cow) and then are beaten to death with examples.
There seem two be two reasons, first and foremost, not every anecdote, example, or explanation resonates the same with each person. So by increasing the number of examples you give, you are increasing the likelihood of an individual reader being able to understand.
Second, just like we learned in elementary with spelling and times tables, to truly 'learn' something repetition and reinforcement are really important and increase the likelihood of people being able to recall and apply the concepts that are taught.
Gladwell and others present just one or two nuggets of brilliance across their books, but, I think most educators would agree with me, that it is because of that repetition and variety of example's that most of us understand and remember the concepts they were trying to teach.
Thanks to you, I'll no longer feel nerd guilt for thinking highly of books like this :)
I don't really expect one book to be the final answer on a topic. In particular, if you do look up the references in a book (even just in a cursory manner) you may be surprised to find that you don't think they support the author's interpretation.
In short, if Gladwell did supply more density or detail, it wouldn't really make his interpretation more right. It might seem to strengthen it in some peoples eyes, but that is an illusion.
Perhaps because even 2018's brightest students are slow (at least in the reading comprehension, knowledge of literature, and attention department) compared to students of decades past?
I haven't read Galdwell's books, but read most of his New Yorker articles. While I have observed that sometimes he cherry-picks data, his gift of communicating ideas effectively is un-ignorable. I have had trouble finding non-fiction writers that can match his ability. Gladwell might not be for you, but it's unfair to criticize him just because his writing lacks an academic treatment for the subject.
I've dipped into Sapiens - it does seems to contain more ideas per chapter than the Gladwell books I've read, though I'll reserve final judgement until I get around to reading it fully.
The last book I read that was written well was Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business.
(I've read Gladwell before and have mixed feeling about his writing)
Single-story history is of course easier to make vivid than thesis-based writing, but he still stands out to me as way above the usual mark for density * readability.
A significant part of what people (myself included) condemn about Gladwell is that you aren't losing anything at all by doing that.
How David Beats Goliath was a pretty interesting New Yorker article built around 2-3 very good stories, connected by some less-than-great history and dubious analysis. (Gladwell repeatedly implies that it's better to be David than Goliath, because Davids who use unusual strategies win more than half the time. He never manages to acknowledge that he's only looking at conventional-strategy Goliaths, and excluding cases where David looked for alternate approaches but found none.) Still, I'm glad I read it. The Eurisko strategy game story is superb, and the full-court press basketball narrative provides an interesting analogue to similar strategies in other sports like 'small ball'.
David and Goliath consisted of those 2-3 very good stories in a 300+ page book, filled out by tenuously-connected stories, ludicrously cherry-picked anecdotes, and confirmation bias filled blunders through sociological data.
Gladwell is definitely a talented storyteller, and turned loose on the right stories that's not to be underestimated. But his book-length works are scattered and heavy on filler at best. At worst, they're things like Outliers, which is focused and persuasively argued - at the cost of wildly misrepresenting the basic facts it relies on.
But... that means he has exactly the skill set you'd hope for in a writing instructor. He's not teaching you how to think or how to do research. He's teaching you how to sound good.
Me think, why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?
Could have been more briefly stated as:
Clunky writing writing can be explained away with "readers are dull and lazy." Whether that's the case or the author has not found a user-friendly & medium appropriate way to work through difficult material... Concluding the latter is likely to produce the best book.
Brian Greene wrote a fantastic walk through of special relativity. He used the "atomic pong on a moving training" that will take an ordinary reader from speed of light invariance to time travel. It was (iircc) a few pages, one picture (the atom bouncing on a train). Incredible bit of pop-science writing.
From there, you can grok what "time flips in a black hole."
Assuming readers (or users) are stupid is just a lot less likely to result in better writing. Concluding that your writing can be easier to understand is.
Do you have a link? It's not obvious which treatment you mean (have done a simple search).
What makes his book airport literature?
> He makes the extraordinary claim that “10 percent of Americans will spend at least a year in the top 1 percent, and more than half of all Americans will spent a year in the top 10 percent”. You’d think he’d link to a source that proves this. He does not. He doesn’t even clarify if he’s talking about income or wealth. This isn’t an oversight, it’s deliberate. As he explains, “just a little bit of significant data is needed when one is right”. Of course Taleb is right, so he absolves himself of the need to prove his claims. He simply needs to state them for them to be true.
He actually derides Thomas Piketty for including data in Capital in the 21st Century!
 - https://blog.nindalf.com/posts/skin-in-the-game/
The target audience is exactly as described - curious but not too bright, easily distracted, and fond of a good narrative with simplistic predigested conclusions, which ideally include a self-improving or reassuring takeaway.
Most pop sci is a strange hybrid of business and personal self-help, with a few tech-ish and sciencey trimmings.
Most of the rest is rehashed biography made of stock anecdotes.
The remainder includes some real science, and is often written by real scientists.
For the sake of argument, let's set aside whether Gladwell's conclusions are correct or not, and just focus on the structure and style of his writing. Not all brains process information the same way. Just like some people are visual learners, and some are auditory learners, some people react better to one type of anecdote versus another. Offering multiple anecdotes or stories around a given topic offers the opportunity for more people to "click" with the concept being presented.
I'll give an example from my own life. I enjoy reading about new technologies, whether programming languages, cloud services, databases, etc. Frequently over the years, I've heard of something, and read a couple of things about it, and then decided "That's not very interesting, I don't think I'd use that, so I can ignore it." Then some time passes and I read something else about it, written from a different point of view. Maybe it describes an application for it that I hadn't considered (and that wasn't presented in the previous things I'd read), or perhaps it relates it to something I already know in such a way that I understand where it fits into my world. I reconsider my position, and find that technology X is, in fact, interesting and worth paying attention to.
That's happened more than once. Probably closer to a dozen times over my career. It's the same thing with books of this nature. If you're the kind of person who can look at a summary of a concept or a new thing, and immediately take stock of what it is, how it works, and how it applies, that's great. You're exactly right, you're not the target audience. That doesn't mean that the people who are the target audience are simple-minded folks who are looking for the intellectual equivalent of junk food. It simply means they process information differently than you do.
If nothing else, it's strange behaviour. If I were accused of being a tobacco shill, I would avoid writing articles with conclusions that align with tobacco industry interests...
Disclaimer: I have a chip on my shoulder about this, and I cancelled my New Yorker subscription over that article.
IMO, a bag of truth and lies is more dangerous than anything else: there's enough truth that the lies sound more plausible making it pretty difficult to separate them. It's much better to just steer clear of unethical authors.
On the flip side it got a lot of high school students interested in studying economics and statistics once they got to college.
The real root of this genre is that magazines are dead. There is a market for tweets and books. Everything else is a path to poverty.
In 1960, Gladwell stuff and Freakonomics, etc would be feature articles in Life or US News & World Report, or Fortune. Now feature writers are extinct.
That’s pretty offensive. If we say that about Mexicans, Koreans or any other nationality, that wouldn’t be ok would it? Somehow it’s ok to insult an entire nationality and it’s “funny?”
I don’t consider reviews or statements that blanket-insult a nationality to be “funny and perhaps containing a shred of truth.” Replace “American” with any other ethnicity or nationality and such comments wouldn’t be allowed on HN or in an Amazon review. The average American has average intelligence, just like the average anything else. When I was living outside the US, there wasn’t any particular difference in terms of pop/superficial awareness. Koreans, Chinese, French, Mexicans — none of the nationalities I’ve lived amongst had above average intellectual fortitude as a culture. They have idiots and geniuses and normal people just like everywhere else. So the ideas behind “American Folksy” could be applied anywhere, but calling is American just makes the whole review offensive.
I also enjoyed Saigon 1965 (S01E02) and the one about McDonald's french fries but more importantly the beginning of the war on fat in America (S02E09).
He unearths some good perspectives in the podcast and it doesn't have the pop-sci feel that his books do that get my BS detector going.
No problem there.
So I’m not convinced that it’s as simple as all that. I’m not saying marketing doesn’t play a role but it’s definitely not the only thing.
The 'bliss point' might play a major role, amongst various other factors.
In the context of evolutionary anthropology this is known as “just-so” stories. Fitting then, that Gladwell’s ketchup essay also contains a just-so stories. He just couldn’t resist.
60% marketshare in the US rather strongly indicates other people can, in fact, sell ketchup.
> the question is why.
I suspect their continued dominance is a result of marketing plus the effect of expectations of consistency leveraging past dominance.
That seems to have occurred with "ketchup" ...
But they're not perfect, because recently we had ketchup at a restaurant that made their own. It was very, very good, and we preferred it to Heinz. It's clearly possible to do better.
Also, mushroom ketchup is amazing. (Also locally made for that restaurant, apparently.)
To me, there's no more a 'ketchup conundrum' than one for mustard. Until I was an adult, regular yellow mustard was the only real choice. (Yes, there were Grey Poupon commercials. Nobody I knew actually ate it. They did make fun of it, though.)
 Ok, me
Absolutely wild and the host is just along for the uncomfortable ride. I still have no clue what he was thinking.
There are hits, there are misses, and then there are whatever that was.