My October 2013 Costco Connection came in the mail yesterday. This is normally not a noteworthy event, but the cover story caught my eye: “The Thinker: Inside the Mind of Malcolm Gladwell.”
The profile of Gladwell is running this month to highlight the fact that his newest book, David and Goliath, is available for sale in Costco warehouses.
In light of both recent and long-running conversations on this blog — conversations about the idea of the public intellectual, the reach (or lack thereof) of academic writing, the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism, the disciplinary differences arising from various hierarchies of sources and qualitative judgments about what should count as ideas or thought — I found Gladwell’s characterization of his own role as a writer interesting:
“I feel that people are experience-rich and theory-poor. That is to say, most people have lots and lots and lots of experiences but don’t have the time to try to make sense of them. It’s a luxury to be able to sit and theorize and read psychologists, sociologists and historians and to attach explanations to events. The reason people read books like my own is that they’re searching for those kinds of explanations, of ways of making sense of things. There is this tremendous body of knowledge in the world of academia where extraordinary numbers of incredibly thoughtful people have taken the time to examine on a really profound level the way we live our lives and who we are and where we’ve been. That brilliant learning sometimes gets trapped in academia and never sees the light of day. I’m trying to give people access to all of that brilliant thinking. It’s a way of going back to college long after you’ve graduated.”
This is, it seems to me, a pretty good summary of what a “popularizer” does. Whether or not Gladwell is a good popularizer is a matter of dispute. Most academics I know seem to hold him in contempt. Like listening to NPR, a disdainful sneer at the mention of Malcolm Gladwell’s name seems to be one of the status signaling gestures of a True Intellectual — or, at least, a True Academic. I believe the party line here would be to say, “All that brilliant thinking never sees the light of day in Gladwell’s work either,” or something like that. So get that out of your system in the comments if you must.
But I’m more interested in how this statement of Gladwell’s functions as part of a marketing campaign. The target audience — for Gladwell, for Costco — emerges very clearly: a comfortably middle-class to affluent audience of college-educated professionals who would like to continue their education informally, or at least expand their intellectual horizons. Again, whether those buyers are getting what they pay for in Gladwell’s books is almost beside the point. What’s intriguing is the idea that “access to all of that brilliant thinking” might be what consumers want.
Perhaps, though, the big selling point here is that Gladwell is “the thinker.” The marketing campaign promises that Gladwell has done the hard work of translating these ideas and insights into an accessible, readable narrative. But the interview (which you can read in its entirety here) is very careful to suggest that Gladwell hasn’t done all the work — his books are portrayed as gently provocative and occasionally controversial. The article finessed this last point very smartly: “Several authors and columnists have challenged assertions or claims in his books, but that at least proves he knows how to stimulate debate among his readers.” That is some savvy PR writing.
Gladwell is a savvy writer too, and he knows his audience. The fact that he is able to achieve bestseller status with titles marketed as “big idea books” might be taken by many critics as a sign of Americans’ shallow thinking, intellectual laziness, etc.
But I tend to see such phenomena more hopefully. I tend to think that Gladwell is right about why many people read his books: because they want to think about stuff they haven’t thought about before, they want to consider things in a new light, but they don’t quite know how to go about it, and these books promise to help them do that.
I think it’s unseemly and terribly unkind to hold such aspirations in contempt. It’s also counterproductive. If we want to see that different ideas, or better ideas, or more important ideas, or more important thinkers, gain a hearing in the public square, I think we have to start with where people are and who people are, what they want, and what they value. And I don’t think that Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a bad place to start. I have enjoyed reading them and discussing them with friends who aren’t academics. I have never discussed them with friends who are academics — until now.