My Ideal Bookshelf book review

May 12, 2015

Although I spend a large proportion of my life reading from (and writing on) screens, I am old enough to believe that books should have physical form. I delight in a well-printed book and have collected … well, let’s just say that I have somewhat more than I need but not nearly as many as I want.

One of the most charming books I have found in years is “My Ideal Bookshelf”, a coffee table book of paintings of “ideal books” selected by a mixed set of 100 cultural figures, from Hugh Acheson to Jonathan Zittrain.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” does everything a coffee table book should do: encourage you to pick it up and browse, as well as delight, entertain and stimulate. The paintings (book cover below) by artist Jane Mount are a special delight: clever, slightly quirky, colourful, friendly, warm, clear and inviting. The text – edits of interviews with the 100 contributors – by Thessaly La Force contains enough content to be interesting, but easy to read in a couple of minutes.

Contributor Malcolm Gladwell (page 75) captures my attitude towards books:

I’ve probably acquired 150 books just for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.

Like all good books, “My Ideal Bookshelf” also stimulates the reader to go further. I first jumped to my favourite authors and personalities to see what they placed on their bookshelves: film director Judd Apatow (Bellow’s “Seize The Day”, Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”), writer Michael Chabon (“Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, along with works by Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Barthelme, Cheever, Joyce and Melville), Jennifer Egan (Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” and works by Jane Austin, George Eliot, Emile Zola and Edith Wharton), James Franco (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Williams, Albee, Melville, Faulkner, Nabakov, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Joyce), Malcolm Gladwell (a set of crime books, his current obsession), Lev Grossman (T.H. White, C.S. Lewis), Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Lethem (Thurber, Calvino and Leonard Cohen), thriller writer James Patterson (a truly eclectic list), African-American author Ishmael Reed (who I once studied with), humourist David Sedaris (three by Tobias Wolff and two by Richard Yates) and Ayelet Waldman.

What a great set of insights as to what has shaped their thinking. What’s next for me? Tracking down many of their favourite books, of course.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” was published by Little Brown in November 2012, and is still in print. Artist Jane Mount also accepts commissions to paint your own “ideal bookshelf”, and sells a range of prints. Their website also lists all contributors and their books, with links to the Amazon pages: a lifetime of reading recommendations at your fingertips.

My Ideal Bookshelf cover high resBack in September 2014, I made a list of ten books that “impacted me”.  Perhaps not quite my “ideal bookshelf”, but a good start.  You can read the list here.

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Malcolm Gladwell on Social Networks

October 23, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell – one of my favourite authors – is in the news again with his October 4, 2010 New Yorker article entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted”.  The article is worth reading in full (and is freely available online, at least for a while), but here is a good summary of Gladwell’s important conclusions (from his final two paragraphs):

[Clay] Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

There has been, as they say, lots of “conversation” about Gladwell’s article, including a New York Times discussion section entitled “Can Twitter Lead People to the Streets?”, a New Yorker on-line chat with Gladwell (one of the most interesting parts of this is Gladwell’s admission that he does not follow Twitter – too much else to read, he says), and articles in the Atlantic Monthly, among others.  Gladwell also makes reference to the (just published book) The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith (Jossey Bass).  (Note this link is to the Australian publisher page for the book.)  The blog from these authors (whose book, is criticised, in part in Gladwell’s article) has followed the discussion.

Useful reading.

Separate note: The Social Network film opens in Australia next Thursday, October 28th, so more on that later.


The Tipping Point book review

September 21, 2009

I know that Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has been around for a long time – since 2000, in fact.  But with Bryan Appleyard naming his book one of the 12 most influential in history, it’s time to have a review of what it’s all about.  (In the following article – taken from my draft PhD thesis – the page numbers refer to the 2000 hardcover edition published in London by Little Brown and Company, London.)

Malcolm Gladwell[1], long-time contributor for The New Yorker, has written a highly influential book on marketing and social communication The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.[2] Gladwell’s key thesis “is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends … the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics” (Gladwell 2000, p. 7).  In examining such diverse trends as the dramatic fall of the crime rate in New York City, the rise of Hush Puppies shoes in the 1990s, the introduction of fax machines in the 1980s, the introduction of mobile (cellular) phones in the 1990s, the “white flight” from the older American cities in the northeast, he points to three common characteristics:  contagiousness, “the fact that little causes can have big effects” and “that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment”.  The name he gives to that dramatic moment is the “Tipping Point” (Gladwell 2000, p. 9), and frequently he is able to name the exact moment:  fax machines hit their “tipping point” in 1987; mobile phones in 1998 (Gladwell 2000, p 12).

Gladwell of course did not create these ideas, all of which are drawn from social psychology literature, but he has certainly been the best populariser and communicator of them since his original 1999 New Yorker article “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” (Gladwell 1999).  His ideas build on – and openly acknowledge – the original research by Stanley Milgram, a Harvard social psychologist who wanted to test the so-called “small world problem” (sometimes called the “small world phenomenon”), which asked the question how closely we are all connected – and by extension how easily might trends and “word of mouth” extend.  In Milgram’s original experiment – much quoted since – 160 people were randomly recruited in Omaha, Nebraska and each asked to send a small package to a stockbroker located outside Boston, Massachusetts, doing so through sending to a friend, each person writing their name on the package as it proceeded.  The result:  the majority of packages arrived in five or six steps (thus the notion of “six degrees of separation”), but interestingly there were only three people who ended up delivering half the packages.  The point is that although the networks of people are virtually infinite, there are a very limited number of people who are crucial to social connections – called the “connectors”.  (See Gladwell 1999, pp. 55-56; Gladwell 2000, pp. 34-38; Milgram 1967; Barabasi 2003, pp. 27-30; Watts 2003, pp. 37-42).  The “six degrees of separation” notion was originally invented in 1929 by the Hungarian fiction writer Frigyes Karinthy in his short story “Chains” (Barabasi 2003, pp. 26-27).[3] In the 1990s it became a trivia game on American university campuses called “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”, which posits that every film star can be connected to actor Kevin Bacon through a number of steps.[4]

The limited number of “connectors” are an important part of the first of his three key “rules” of the “Tipping Point” – the “law of the few”, that there are exceptional people capable of “starting epidemics”.  The second law is the “stickiness factor” – that “there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible”.  His third law is the “power of context” – the fact that we are “exquisitely sensitive to changes in context” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 29, 132 &140).

“Connectors” are good networkers:  they know lots and lots of people, remember them and operate as good communicators between wide and diverse numbers of people.[5] Gladwell points out that “connectors” are not sufficient to create an epidemic of word of mouth connection.  He identifies two additional types:  the “Maven” (from the Yiddish), meaning active and obsessive knowledge accumulators and brokers, and the “persuader” – the salesman with charisma and the capability of capturing the attention of the audience.  Paul Revere (“The British are coming” was his word of mouth epidemic) reportedly was not only a great connector, but also an excellent and highly knowledgeable “Maven” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 56-59 & 91-92).

In discussing his “stickiness factor”, Gladwell points out that “We have become, in our society, overwhelmed by people clamoring for our attention” (Gladwell 2000, p. 98).  I call this the excessively “noisy” world we live in (also see Mohr 2007).  Tina Lukk calls it “media clutter” (Lukk 1997, p. xxii). Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck put it even more bluntly:  “Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success” (Davenport and Beck 2001, p. 3).

Gladwell’s idea of context is significant.  He makes the point that everything happens in a certain environment and time frame and that these are very powerful to how we behave and act.  As an example he points to the power of groups – and specifically how the book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells became a best-seller, first in northern California, which has one of the strongest book-club cultures in the USA, where the book clubs started the “epidemic” that spilled over to the wider population.

Gladwell’s point is that, in certain contexts, “close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea” (Gladwell 2000, p. 175).  His overall conclusion:  “Starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas”.  Aside from connectors, Mavens and persuaders, “no one else matters” (Gladwell 2000, pp. 255-256).

With the exponential growth of the Internet and the more recent phenomenon of social networking, there has been a veritable explosion in additional books that complement and extend the sorts of ideas which Gladwell originally popularised in 1999 and 2000.  Other writers have discussed the connections and science of networks, including Steven Johnson (2001), Duncan J. Watts (2003), Emanuel Rosen (2000), Howard Rheingold (2002) and Nicholas Taleb (2004).

Footnotes follow:


[1] See Malcolm Gladwell’s website at www.gladwell.com.  In a July 2009 article, Bryan Appleyard listed The Tipping Point as one of “12 books that helped to change the world” (Appleyard 2009).

[2] Originally published in 2000, by late 2008 the paperback edition The Tipping Point was still widely on sale in Australian airport newstands, a testament to the book’s enduring popularity and influence – the book had reached its own “tipping point” of awareness.

[3] The “six degrees” concept well and truly entered popular imagination with the play Six Degrees of Separation (1990) by John Guare, and the subsequent (1993) film directed by Fred Schepsi and starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland.

[4] An internet version of the “Kevin Bacon” game called “Oracle of Kevin Bacon” is now available (http://oracleofbacon.org/), utilising the Internet Movie Database of names.  After reportedly resisting the idea for many years, Bacon has now embraced it and established a charity that supports other charities (www.sixdegrees.org/).

[5] The notion of “connectors” has been widely noted and accepted as a successful means of finding jobs.  A very large percentage of jobs are found by people through so-called “weak ties”.  See Mark Granovetter, Getting a Job (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995).  Rosen (2000, pp. 42-57) calls these “network hubs”.

Bibliography:

Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo (2003) Linked:  How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life.  New York:  Plume.

Davenport, Thomas H. & Beck, John C. (2001) The Attention Economy:  Understanding the New Currency of Business.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Gladwell, Malcolm (1999) “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”, The New Yorker, January 11, 1999, pp. 51-63.  Available at http://www.gladwell.com/1999/1999_01_11_a_weisberg.htm

Gladwell, Malcolm (2000) The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  London:  Little, Brown & Co.

Johnson, Steven (2001) Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software.  London:  Penguin Books.

Lukk, Tiiu (1997) Movie Marketing:  Opening the Picture and Giving It Legs.  Los Angeles:  Silman James Press.

Milgram, Stanley (1967) “The Small World Problem,” Psychology Today, Volume 1, pp. 60-67.

Mohr, Iris (2007) “Buzz marketing for movies”, Business Horizons, Volume 50, Issue 5, September-October 2007, pp. 395-403.

Rheingold, Howard (2002) Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Basic Books.

Rosen, Emanuel (2000) The Anatomy of Buzz:  How to Create Word-Of-Mouth Marketing.  New York:  Doubleday.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2004) Fooled by Randomness:  The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  New York:  Random House.

Watts, Duncan J. (2003) Six Degrees:  The Science of a Connected Age.  New York:  Norton.


Outliers book review

August 13, 2009

Book review of Outliers:  The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Published by Penguin, $26.95.  This review appeared in today’s edition (August 13, 2009) of the Australian Jewish News.

Back in January 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian writer who has a Jamaican mother and a British father, published a fascinating article in The New Yorker entitled “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg”. In the article, he described how this Jewish grandmother living in Chicago was a “particularly rare and extraordinary type who seems to know everyone”.  From this initial article came his breakthrough 2000 book The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference – a business-marketing-come-social-psychology book that attempted to explain real world phenomena through careful research and highly accessible writing.  Why was Paul Revere’s ride so successful?  Why did crime drop in New York City?  Gladwell explained it all, and in doing so singlehandedly started a highly popular new genre of books along the lines of Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, James Surowieki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist and Gladwell’s own 2005 Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Now Gladwell has turned his attention to an analysis of highly successful people in Outliers:  The Story of Success, where he attempts to deconstruct the essential prerequisites for extreme success – people like Bill Gates and the Beatles.  In doing so, Gladwell has almost become that which he describes:  “Outliers” is a fabulously successful business/non-fiction book:  since its first release in late 2008, it has been in the “top ten” of The New York Times best-selling non-fiction list, and recently regained the number one position – and reached number nine in Australian non-fiction best-sellers earlier this month, a full eight months after being published here.

Gladwell’s key:  a highly fluid writing style that reads easier than a novel, great vignettes, and a personal touch that quickly engages the reader.  In fact his last chapter is about how his mother rose out of highly stratified racial Jamaica to travel to England, meet his father and eventually produce him (a neat touch).

And what does Gladwell conclude are the essential elements of success?  Birth date (time of year) DOES matter, particularly when cut-offs arbitrarily assist older children in sport and academics.  So does practice:  his “10,000 hour rule” postulates that to be superb at anything (music, computers, etc) you must practice at least that amount of time when you are young.  And accidents of birth – place and time – also matter a great deal.  Bill Gates became successful not only because of his genius, but because of his timing:  born in 1955, he was the right age (20) at the right time (1975) at the dawn of the computer age to become an IT mogul.  And he had access to unlimited free computing time.  Had Gates been born ten or even five years earlier or later, it is very unlikely he would be the household name he is now.

And what does this mean for the Jews, who have frequently been “outliers” throughout history?  This is where Gladwell gets even more interesting.  He tells the story of Jewish scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the American atomic bomb project, and did so despite a history of severe depression that lead him to try to poison his tutor in graduate school.  Oppenheimer was convincing enough to survive that incident and still thrive – all because he had the ability to convince others – which Gladwell marks to his upper-class background which gave him “concerted cultivation”.

Gladwell also devotes a whole chapter to New York Jewish lawyer Joe Flom.  Because of widespread antisemitism in old-line Wall Street law firms in the 1950s and 1960s, Jewish lawyers were excluded and had to take work that the “white shoe firms” did not want – litigation and proxy fights.  Except a funny thing happened in the 1970s:  as money became easier to borrow, as the aversion to lawsuits disappeared and markets internationalised, these Jewish lawyers (including Flom) had a unique set of skills on which to capitalise, and became wildly successful – and very rich and powerful.  Gladwell’s thesis is even more complicated, examining demography, birth rates, classroom sizes in New York City (very low in the 1930s) and the quality of New York public schools (the best in the country in the 1940s) to analyse why a certain generation of New York Jewish lawyers did very well.

Gladwell is by no means the first person to conclude that antisemitism has helped the Jews adapt to modernity.  Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century examined this in great depth, and Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood applied a similar thesis to the rise of the Jewish film moguls.  But not all smart Jews who experienced antisemitism flourished professionally.  Gladwell’s expertise is in showing how accidents of history and time have impacted and made some people successful and others not.