On Gladwell’s Articles

by F.

In reviewing a book called A Perfect Mess, Adrian Wooldridge says the book

suffers from a bad dose of Malcolm Gladwell disease. Like the author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink,” Messrs. Abrahamson and Freedman are not content to throw out an interesting observation. They have to pump it up to hundreds of pages of pseudo-scientific prose: classifying mess into different varieties (clutter, mixture, inconsistency, blur); roaming around the worlds of chaos theory and urbanology; and, above all, regurgitating hundreds of examples.

Last night I reread Open Secrets, Gladwell’s last piece in The New Yorker. The second time through, it’s less impressive, but still great entertainment. The question is, Why? Part of the answer lies in Wooldridge’s quote.

The “idea piece” revolves around—you guessed it—an idea, usually a simple one that is either (1) new or (2) old but applied to new, unexpected data. In “Open Secrets,” it’s the distinction between a “mystery” and a “puzzle.” So the main idea is something like this: “One way to tackle a problem is to decide whether it is a mystery or a puzzle, and then solve accordingly.” (I won’t bore you with the distinction, which is in the article and comes from Gregory Treverton.) We get a number of examples of this idea: Enron, the “war on terror,” and Germany’s V-1 rocket program in World War II.

What’s interesting is how Gladwell sequences the piece. An amateur would start with a definition or something equally clumsy. “The definition of a puzzle is blah; the definition of a mystery is blah blah.” By that time, the reader is asleep. Instead, Gladwell starts with a great scene: the sentencing of Jeffrey Skilling.

On the afternoon of October 23, 2006, Jeffrey Skilling sat at a table at the front of a federal courtroom in Houston, Texas. He was wearing a navy-blue suit and a tie. He was fifty-two years old, but looked older. Huddled around him were eight lawyers from his defense team. Outside, television-satellite trucks were parked up and down the block.

“We are here this afternoon,” Judge Simeon Lake began, “for sentencing in United States of America versus Jeffrey K. Skilling, Criminal No. H-04-25.” He addressed the defendant directly: “Mr. Skilling, you may now make a statement and present any information in mitigation.”

It’s concrete, detailed. Like most compelling stories this one starts with a person (the other option is a dog) and the person has something at stake—an obvious dramatic need (here: to get out of prison). So right from the start, it’s interesting. Later, in the second section, we get the idea that will unify the piece, which sort of comes out of nowhere:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

That’s a little bit of a shock, but it’s a good shock. Now we wonder, What is the connection? It makes you curious. And, again, there’s a person right there at the beginning—Treverton. Then the rest of the piece consists of cutting back and forth between data that fits the idea (or pattern—same thing) and explanation of the idea, showing how the specific examples (anecdotes) fall under the general idea.

So in “Open Secrets,” after the mystery/puzzle pattern, we get examples from Enron, then Al-Qaeda, then the V-1 program, then Enron, then Al-Qaeda, and so on (I’m not saying this is the exact order he follows—it’s an example). At the end, we remember the simple idea in part because of all these colorful, dramatic examples. And it just works. It’s great writing and great pedagogy.

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