Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Tipping Point Is Nonfiction You Can Devour In 24 Hours Or Less

When I packed my bags for Africa, I (of course) had a huge stack of books ready to include. But when traveling to Africa to visit family, there are things you have to do. Things like go to Trader Joe's and purchase lots of goodies for your brother and sister-in-law who only ever get to shop in markets in rural Africa. Then things like this have to fit into your suitcase:

So, as a result of my Trader Joe's trip (and also some things I bought for the cutest little nephew in the world), I had much less room for books. (The amount of clothes I packed had absolutely nothing to do with it, obviously!)

While traveling, I finished every paperback book I had with me within a week. I had audio books and I had e-books, but sometimes those are just not what you want. If you're me, you simply want a book you can hold in your hand. Holly pulled out some titles for me to look through, and I found several nonfiction titles that sounded interesting.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point was the first book I chose from their stack. Actually a book Carson and Holly had borrowed from their fellow missionary teammate Brett Harrison, Tipping Point entertained me thoroughly. So thoroughly, in fact, that I finished it in one afternoon.

The basic premise of the book is to explore trends -- how they get started and take off at rocket speed. Gladwell also discusses (minimally, I would argue) how to use this knowledge to enact positive change. Gladwell includes dozens of interesting stories about popular trends in The Tipping Point: crime taking a dive in New York City, Sesame Street, teen smoking.

On his website, Gladwell goes into further detail about the ideas behind this book, but here are a few quotes:
"[I]deas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics. The Tipping Point is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us."
"Think, for a moment, about an epidemic of measles in a kindergarten class. One child brings in the virus. It spreads to every other child in the class in a matter of days. And then, within a week or so, it completely dies out and none of the children will ever get measles again. That's typical behavior for epidemics: they can blow up and then die out really quickly, and even the smallest change -- like one child with a virus -- can get them started."
"As human beings, we always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, and for there to be some relationship between cause and effect. And when there isn't -- when crime drops dramatically in New York for no apparent reason, or when a movie made on a shoestring budget ends up making hundreds of millions of dollars -- we're surprised. I'm saying, don't be surprised. This is the way social epidemics work."
The reason The Tipping Point works is because Gladwell is such a well-informed, yet enormously easy-to-read, writer. He presents new, interesting ideas in a clear manner. He makes strong arguments, but reasonable ones -- ideas backed by research.

Julie at Book Hooked Blog recently wrote a post about her dismay over nonfiction without citations, and Gladwell does his topic justice. Included at the end of the book is an extensive array of citations, the references Gladwell used in researching the book. Its inclusion causes the reader to trust Gladwell's statements.

The only gripe I have with The Tipping Point is Gladwell's claim that it is a self-help book, a book that people can put into practice in their lives. In my opinion, it is an interesting examination of social trends, even an eye-opening one. But I don't feel that Gladwell gives enough instruction to back up this claim:
"One of the things I'd like to do is to show people how to start 'positive' epidemics of their own. . . . I also take a pressing social issue, teenage smoking, and break it down and analyze what an epidemic approach to solving that problem would look like. The point is that by the end of the book I think the reader will have a clear idea of what starting an epidemic actually takes."
I would like for him to teach me how to do that, especially as a middle school educator. I would love to think that there was a formula or a pattern I could use to affect my students positively. I just didn't see any clear instructions in this book; I saw fabulous, interesting ideas. But not instruction. Perhaps that's something to look forward to in future Gladwell books.

Malcolm Gladwell is also the author of Blink (which is on my to-read list now) and Outliers (which I read and loved even more than The Tipping Point). He has also written many a column for The New Yorker, the archives of which are available here.

1 comment:

  1. Oh yeah, subtle and slow change is nearly a matter of books alone these days.



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