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The Boston Phoenix Getting Tipsy

High on "The Tipping Point"

By Jon Garelick

APRIL 10, 2000: 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown), 279 pages, $24.95.

No nonfiction writer can make me more conscious of what's called "reporting" than Malcolm Gladwell. It's probably safe to say that when most of us read a piece of nonfiction -- especially a piece of daily journalism, or a magazine article on, say, e-commerce -- we're not immediately aware of reporting. In the news stories of daily journalism, we're concerned first of all with clarity and completeness in the presentation of information -- like an editor, we're subconsciously looking for the who, what, where, when, and how. In op-ed and magazine stories, reviews and critical pieces, we look at the quality of the argument, the trustworthiness of the voice behind the piece.

But the word "reporting" means more to journalists than what's on the page -- it's about what's behind the page, not the story, but how the journalist got the story, who the sources are and how the writer found them.

The special pleasures of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker pieces have been in his reporting. Gladwell's prose "style" is clear, transparent even, and his voice personable. But when he's writing about retail fashion marketing, for instance, you tend to marvel at how he connected two young marketing wizards checking out sneaker wearers in the Bronx in the mid '90s to "diffusion research" done on the use of hybrid seed corn in Greene County, Iowa, in the 1930s. Or why an article on e-commerce begins with the invention, at the turn of the century, of a road-grading device called the King Road Drag. The first story could have been a conventional personality profile. Instead it made a cogent argument about how fashion trends are discovered and spread. The latter story argued that there's no essential difference between the e-driven Lands' End catalogue of Christmas 1999 and the Sears, Roebuck catalogue of 1915.

In Gladwell's writing, the quality of reporting takes on the shape of thought. His work of the past several years is all about how ideas get from here to there. It's no wonder that in his new book, The Tipping Point, one of his favorite sources is Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride. Revere, after all, was exceptionally good at spreading a very simple idea ("The British are coming") and getting people to act on it. Of course, in Gladwell's world, it's a short jump from Revere to high-end mail-order king Roger Horchow or Chicago civic maven Lois Weisberg.

The Tipping Point consolidates many of the arguments and examples from Gladwell's New Yorker pieces. Using viral epidemics as a model, he talks about how social epidemics spread. These include an analysis of how the New York crime rate dropped precipitously in the 1990s and how a sleeper of a novel called Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood would suddenly "tip" two years after its original publication and go on to sell 2.5 million copies. And with the help of Fischer, Gladwell explains why Paul Revere was so good at spreading the word while his fellow revolutionary William Dawes (the other maker of that midnight ride) was not.

As in his articles, it's the flight of Gladwell's thought that captures your imagination -- from Fischer to journals of child psychology to crime studies to vivid portraits of contemporary spreaders of "epidemics," it's all grist for his arguments about how individuals turn into herds. On occasion, I did miss some of the work from Gladwell's original New Yorker pieces (over the phone he tells me that 75 percent of The Tipping Point is new). And in a recent New York Times Book Review piece, the sociologist Alan Wolfe sniffed that The Tipping Point is little more than "common sense dressed up as science."

But I'd argue that Gladwell makes counter-intuitive leaps of thought and presents them in common-sense terms. (Gladwell is also eager to point out, good-naturedly, how Wolfe misrepresented one key example of the tipping point.) Which is why they sound simpler than they are. And which is why "reportorial" style has never seemed better executed than when Gladwell writes about the cigarette epidemic among teens and young adults and the pointless attempts to make smoking "not cool": "Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool."

When I finally get Gladwell to reveal the secrets of his reportorial technique to me, the answer couldn't be more disappointing -- at first. "I spend a lot of time just kind of rooting around the library. I've always been a library hound." But, he adds, there's always serendipity -- the kind of serendipity that characterizes those spreaders of ideas whom in his books he calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. "I had written a draft of a chapter of the book about connectors and I was talking to the wife of a friend of mine in Boston and she said, 'Paul Revere was a connector! You have to go and read this marvelous book!' "


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