~ There is only one journey: going inside yourself. ~
- Rainer Maria Rilke


The Tipping Point ~ Friday, January 12, 2007

Thus far, The Tipping Point is interesting. As mentioned before (in my other blog), it appears to be about those memes that reach a certain stage of saturation, so that an idea, phenomenon or trend suddenly goes from being the domain of a small group to being a widespread social reality. He essentially argues (as is the case, I believe, with the meme argument) that these ideas or social phenomena behave in the same way as do epidemics, following a similar pattern of transmission and spread.

It is also interesting to contrast this book with Gladwell's next work, Blink. Although I was complaining a few days ago about the sense of slick packaging and catchiness that seems endemic in this sort of popular non-fiction, it would seem that The Tipping Point was on the leading edge of such packaging trends. It therefore only has it in to only a minimal degree (in the form of the catchiness and intrigue of a concept like "the tipping point"--far more interesting-sounding than "Memes: Survival of the Fittest" or something like that, IMO). It's funny to realise that the past six years (or so) have seen such a sea change in the way that popular non-fiction has been packaged and marketed.

And yet... here it is. The Tipping Point is far less readable. It plods somewhat. It has neat ideas, but few personalities. It stays within the realm of stats, ideas, discoveries and (so far, at least) doesn't put faces to names or images to places mentioned. Blink, by contrast, demonstrates a major change in Gladwell's style and method of presentation. It very much falls into the category of "creative non-fiction." Usually, each chapter or section in which an interesting experiment or breakthrough is discussed begins with a description--either of a place or of the person associated with these experiments (e.g.--not an excerpt--"John Doe is a retiring man of slight build. His eyes glance away when he shakes hands, and so his voice comes as a surprise: rich, deep and commanding." Or "on the surface, it seems like the kind of playground you'd find in any neighbourhood that had once seen better days. But this place is different.").

Of course, the latter style is far more compelling. He also tends to insert more direct quotes into his explications, breaking up the presentation of concepts through this sort of variation. Lastly, he dramatizes. So for instance, in The Tipping Point, he'll make the point about epidemics by saying (again, these aren't direct quotes cause I'm too lazy to go and get the book, but this is the general idea), "X number of people used this clinic and it was determined that of those people, only Y number of them were actually in a position to transmit the disease."

In Blink, he'll begin his point about how, during states of heightened tension, we move into a more reactive, less reflective mode that is dangerous and mistake-prone in high stakes situations like this, "When Joe Bloe arrived home that night, he was exhausted. He ate a weary meal and then decided to step out onto the front stairs for a breath of fresh air. It was a beautiful, clear evening..." etc. Eventually, the anecdote winds around to, say, a tragic shooting--but we still don't know where he's going with it. The pages that follow explain why--according to his interpretation--the shooting took place (e.g. what the physiological and psychological reactions might have been under the circumstances), and now we begin to see why he began with the story, how it all ties in and so on. We also have higher stakes in understanding how this phenomenon works, because we're emotionally engaged and horrified and eager for insight into how such a terrible thing could have happened. It's undeniably effective.

So yes, though I feel irritated--and often manipulated--by some elements of the "creative non-fiction" approach to packaging and promotion, in the case of newer non-fiction trendy reads ("Rogue economist" working at the University of Chicago, hey?!), I have to admit, I do like the greater degree of readability. I'll give 'em that, at least. ;-)

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 10:53 AM::::


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