Books

Between the Lines: Malcolm Gladwell shines a light on hidden stories

“If I had a clear sense of where I’m headed (when I start a book), I would end up closing lots of doors,” said writer Malcolm Gladwell.
“If I had a clear sense of where I’m headed (when I start a book), I would end up closing lots of doors,” said writer Malcolm Gladwell. Bill Wadman

Perhaps part of what enables journalist-lecturer Malcolm Gladwell to “cut through conventional wisdom to define new ways of understanding” – as Washingtonian magazine put it – lies in his genes. After all, his Jamaican mother is a psychotherapist, and his British father is a university professor who has taught math and engineering.

Given Gladwell’s insightful pragmatism, it’s as good an explanation as any. In five best-selling books, he has dazzled readers and critics with his expertise at dovetailing psychology, sociology, technology, history, politics and the arts – with humor and panache, no less. At the same time, he keenly discovers new insights into the human condition, largely by seeing the world through the eyes of others.

He has been described as a “pop sociologist” and “solver of minor mysteries,” but really is a thinker, provocateur and, above all, storyteller. With typical telling humor, he calls himself “an emissary from other worlds.”

Gladwell’s résumé includes jobs at American Spectator magazine, The Washington Post and since 1996 The New Yorker magazine. He was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005 and holds many honors including a National Magazine Award, the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues from the American Sociological Association, and an appointment to the Order of Canada.

Gladwell, 52, lives in New York City; www.malcolmgladwell.com. Catch him on TED Talks.

Q: What’s the topic of your Sacramento Speakers Series presentation?

A: I’m going to tell a story that’s entirely new, based on the concept in (my book) “David and Goliath.” What it takes for power to be perceived as legitimate by the people who are subjected to that power.

Q: You’re just back from Europe.

A: I’m working on a podcast called “Revisionist History,” and I was doing reporting for it. One episode is about a particular painting in England, so I did a bunch of interviews in London. The 10-episode series will air in the spring on the Panoply Network.

Q: Are you also writing your next book?

A: No, I’m doing the podcast as a procrastination device to delay the consideration of my next book. After that, I’ll think about what it will be.

Q: You were born in England.

A: Yes, I grew up there and in Canada, and consider England to be home. The English are a little more reserved and formal than most Americans, and when I’m around them I feel like I’m around people just like me.

Q: You write expertly about so many diverse subjects that some see you as a modern-day renaissance man.

A: That’s an incredibly generous description. I’m just a reporter, conditioned to believe that if you make enough phone calls and talk with enough people, you can come to a basic understanding (of an issue). You get a kind of confidence in your ability to master something and educate yourself about it.

Q: You have a unique approach to your books.

A: It’s the themes that draw me and make me want to investigate. But my point of view when I start a book is very vague. If I had a clear sense of where I’m headed, I would end up closing lots of doors. I’ll find myself circling around a topic, and when I see myself getting more and more fascinated, I start to think maybe it’s worthy of a book. Then I let my curiosity and imagination run wild in the reporting. It’s a very haphazard method for writing a book, but it’s also a really fun way of doing it.

Q: You’ve said your book “Blink” is about “snap judgments and first impressions,” and include the story of New Coke as a cautionary tale. In 1985, the Coca-Cola company reformulated its recipe for Coke, and the negative uproar forced it to return to the classic recipe.

A: The truth is, the kinds of cognitive errors that lead to disastrous decisions are common to all of us. By definition, human beings are flawed decision-makers. Psychology has documented just how many glitches there are in our software. It’s more surprising when people make wise decisions.

Q: Social media lit up over Béyoncé’s “homage” to the Black Panthers at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. As further backdrop, there’s the controversy over the Oscar nominations’ lack of racial diversity, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Are race relations an example of a societal behavior that’s reaching a point of no return, as defined in your book “The Tipping Point,” or do they reflect a collectively raised consciousness?

A: In a positive way, we’re no longer being complacent. The bar is being raised for what we can do as acceptable behavior, but it’s only recently that people have stood up and said, “Now, wait a minute …” In the short term, it creates a lot of tension and unrest in society, but I think that’s a good thing in the long run. I am tremendously encouraged by all of this. It’s the way we get better.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Malcolm Gladwell’s bibliography

  • “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference” (2000)
  • “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” (2005)
  • “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008)
  • “What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures”
  • “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” (2013)

Sacramento Speakers Series

Who: Malcolm Gladwell

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Cost: $70-$150 for a two-event package (with Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords on Tuesday, April 5); tickets not sold at door

Information: www.sacramentospeakers.com, 916-388-1100

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