Based on the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s books—approximately 8 zillion sold and counting—I went into Outliers with moderately high expectations. For a nonfiction author to attain Gladwell’s level of notoriety, even with a platform like the New Yorker, I assumed one of two things must be true: Either he’s a phenomenal writer, or every book includes a $50 Red Lobster gift certificate in the back flap. Sadly, neither is the case.
Now, in fairness, Outliers is not a bad book. The idea is compelling—Gladwell seeks to identify the stories behind some of the world’s most successful people, without settling for “Oh Bill Gates is just like, super awesome with computers” logic. His overall point—explained through multiple interesting examples—is that factors like upbringing, cultural background and circumstance play a very large role in success. And once you start reading, it’s kind of a “duh” realization. In fact, any kid who’s ever been the youngest in his elementary school class (sorry late birthdays!) realizes that even something as uncontrollable as your birth month can have every effect on your ability to stand out in a crowd.
And I guess this is where my central gripe with Gladwell comes in: As true as his argument is, the man definitely knows how to belabor a point. After the first example, I was all “Huh, interesting!” Then the second came along and I was like “Yup yup, definitely get it” then the third and I thought “Yes, okay, I definitely understand” and by the time he was rolling out his fifth and sixth examples, I was pretty much on board with the whole idea and completely ready to move on from it, i.e. to another book.
Now, I don’t personally read the New Yorker very often—cue hipster shame—but I can see how Gladwell would succeed in that format, with just about 2,000 words at his disposal. Turn that into 300 pages and his diligence in proving a thesis became a little bit tiresome. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t found myself quoting Gladwell’s examples to friends over dinner (I have) but rather that, even though I found Outliers interesting and even enlightening, it just didn’t manage to excite me.
Nonfiction can be tricky, and Gladwell’s consistent approach and clean writing lead me to believe that his accessibility—rather than, for example, his flair—has helped make him so popular. But me, I’m particular. When I’m reading nonfiction, I like to feel that the author is discovering things as I am, and I particularly enjoy hearing about their reactions to those discoveries. I’m hooked on Mary Roach because her immersion in the subject matter makes her books informative and also hilarious, and Susan Casey’s The Wave wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if she cut out her personal reactions to the people, places and things she was researching. Gladwell, by contrast, kind of just gives you the facts. Even when he stops to attach them to his own life—detailing the circumstances that led his parents to meet and enabled him to have all the opportunities of a 21st century American—it’s still a little bit on the dull side.
Outliers is a solid read, and probably a good introduction to the whole Gladwell oeuvre. But I can’t say I’ll be checking out the other books anytime soon. Compelling hypotheses aside, the most interesting thing about Gladwell definitely remains his hair.
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell
PAGES: 285 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Tipping Point, Blink
SORTA LIKE: Proofiness
FIRST LINE: “Roseto Valfortore lies one hundred miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.”