Friday, February 13, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars
Having read Blink prior to The Tipping Point, I came into reading this book viewing it as “the novel that made Gladwell famous.” After finishing it, however, I was left thinking, “this was very clearly his first book.”

The Tipping Point goes out of its way to spell out a concrete agenda right from the start: it is going to explain why certain phenomena spread like wildfire and others do not; why one fad will catch, and another will fizzle; why one message will be passed like an epidemic, and another will get lost in the din. Gladwell accomplishes this by fashioning a structure of constant repetition. His chapters are identically laid out, with each illustration followed by mountains of explanation, followed by re-illustration, followed by re-explanation, until he is positive that his reader has grasped what he has attempted to explain. Then, in later chapters, he brings back his earlier illustrations and re-explains them again, just to make sure his reader has not forgotten about them and also to make sure the reader knows how they apply.

In a way, all of this explanation would be good, if Gladwell were teaching a concept that would be tested at the end of the book. However, this is a book for the general populace, and as a member of that populace, I want to be entertained. I like his illustrations, and I like his explanations for them, but I do not like having him dredge them up and re-explain them every time he wants to make a new point. Clearly his favorite example was Paul Revere, because every time he had a new point to make, there was that infamous guy and his midnight ride, galloping across the page. If Gladwell would have just laid out the puzzle pieces and then neatly tied them all up at the end, I may have been satisfied. However, the fact that he would lay one piece down and then insist on immediately picking it up again and squeezing it into its proper place—that irritated me. I like it when the author trusts me to do a little thinking for myself.

Reading can be used as a form of learning, and reading can be used as a form of entertainment. Occasionally—but not often—it can be used for both purposes. In The Tipping Point I think Gladwell was aiming to achieve both. However, the book was written and marketed toward a more general market, and the general market wants to think, “Oh! That’s so cool!” not, “Boy do I feel smart after reading this.” The general market is not going to go out and apply Gladwell’s marketing strategies after reading his book, because these people are the ones on whom his strategies are supposed to work! People reading about his “stickiness factor” and “the power of context” who already know about these concepts have more legitimate terms for them, and everyone else probably doesn’t care enough to do anything with the concepts. Therefore, Gladwell should have focused more on amp-ing up his “interesting examples”, rather than explaining “here’s how everything fits into my theory.”

That being said, I found the most fascinating part of his book the Afterword. This was where he discussed reactions to his book and what he learned after publishing it. This was where he included sections of material that he would have written in the book, had he had the knowledge and opportunity before finishing it. I think all authors wish for this opportunity, and I felt that this section of the book was not only more insightful, but better written than the rest. Perhaps by the time Gladwell wrote this part, he already had the experience of having written and published Blink. In any case, the concept of Outliers does not interest me—it does not seem novel or innovative enough to warrant writing a book about—but I will be curious to gauge the public’s reaction to it.

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