Book Review : Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

For Book Club Meeting: Saturday, 6th February 2010.
Venue: Ms. Madhavi Murthy’s residence. Time: 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm

I will not find myself nodding in total agreement when other readers will say: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is an out-and-out, easy-to-grasp, enjoyable book. So, what happened between Outliers and me? Or, why does it happen, when a certain book withdraws the features of holding a reader’s attention, continuously? Well, I certainly know what failed between me and the book, and this is it. To grip one fact on computers, then with engineering, then with statements of calculus, and “CTMU” – “the Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe”, got me zapped by their academic terms of credentials, where I have always been like a fish without water. At one point, I was looking at the story’s content as some sort of a long paper which I was not enjoying: finishing it.

On the other hand, Outliers for me, also took some big shots, now and then. The Introduction by The Roseto Mystery was almost enticing. Chapter Two’s – The 10,000 – Hour Rule propelled me with inspiration. Chris Langan’s story is heart breaking, and even more so, with Chris Langan’s mother’s background. Page 103 reveals: Chris Langan’s mother was from San Francisco and was estranged from her family. She had four sons, each with a different father. Chris was the eldest. His father disappeared before Chris was born; he was said to have died in Mexico. His mother’s second husband was murdered. Her third committed suicide. Her fourth was a failed journalist named Jack Langan. “To this day I haven’t met anybody who was as poor when they were kids as our family was,” Chris Langan says. “We didn’t have a pair of matched socks. Our shoes had holes in them. Our pants had holes in them. We only had one set of clothes. I remember my brothers and I going into the bathroom and using the bathtub to wash our only set of clothes and were bare-assed naked when we were doing that because we didn’t have anything to wear.” Jack Langan (the latest step-father, on the scene) would go on drinking sprees and disappear. He would lock the kitchen cabinets so the boys couldn’t get to the food. He used to bullwhip to keep the boys in line. He would get jobs and then lose them, moving the family on to the next town. Chris Langan continues: “Then I lost that scholarship… My mother was supposed to fill out a parent’s financial statement for the renewal of that scholarship. She neglected to do so.”

Malcolm Gladwell stands very well explaining about “opportunities” and “practical intelligence”. Yes, indeed, with “opportunities” we get better and more confident; “opportunities” are acting as fillers for our dreams… those dreams that are definitely fair grounds for the things, or, causes that we believe in. This takes me to page 51: Bill Joy, the math whiz – that tall and gawky and sixteen years old in the year of 1971 was brilliant, no doubt. He wanted to learn, no doubt. That was a big part of it, no doubt. But, before Bill Joy could become an expert, someone had to give him the “opportunity” to learn how to be an expert. Further, proceeding to the meaning and importance of “practical intelligence” – the psychologist Robert Sternberg describes it thus on page 115: the practical skill that allows you to talk your way out of a murder trap, or convince your professor to move you from the morning to the afternoon section is what “practical intelligence” is. Author, Gladwell says: It is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It’s practical in nature: that is, it’s not knowledge for its own sake. It is knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want. And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. You can have lots of analytical intelligence and very little practical intelligence. There we are readers! Striking chords with these profound lines.

Coming to the style of writing of Malcolm Gladwell: he achieves a lasting effect with the flow of minimal words. Example, page 133, describing Joe Flom, partner of the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. Here is how the author describes Joe Flom: ‘He is short and slightly hunched. His head is large, framed by long prominent ears, his narrow blue eyes are hidden by oversize aviator-style glasses. He is slender now, but during his heydays, Flom was extremely over weight. He waddles when he walks. He doodles when he thinks. He mumbles when he talks, and when he makes way down the halls of Skadden, Arps, conversations drop to a hush.’ Here, the author sustains the reader’s participation clearly.

Moving forward to page 329, it was interesting to get the tracing of Colin Powell’s (Former Secretary of State, USA) family tree. Colin Powell’s colour-complexion always drew meaning of curiosity for me, and A Jamaican Story’s portion in the book explains it. Malcolm Gladwell talks in depth about “white and light”, an “Injun” – a man with a dark complexion and straight, fine black hair. Though all of us remember the horrible things about slavery, Outliers draws us together again with a force that most cannot deny. My heart went in the best way, seeing, the author’s photograph at the back of the book’s jacket. I am thinking: no one is less than others, why should the tone of skin extend to the boundaries of stupid judgmental decisions?

To wrap up my review on the book, I will quote what Time had to say about Outliers. ‘Makes geniuses look a bit less special, and the rest of us a bit more.’

Geeta Chhabra

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