I am sick of reading about Malcolm Gladwell’s hair.
Sure, The New Yorker writer has funny hair. It has been big. Very big. It is audacious hair, hair that dares you not to notice it; hair that has been mentioned in far too many reviews. Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is its own thing.
Which is only appropriate, since in his writing, Gladwell has always gone his own way. But he’s been doing it long enough, and so well, and has made so much money, that some folks feel it’s time to trim him down to size. That hair is now seen as uppity.
Gladwell is a mere journalist. He’s not shy, and like many children of academics, he is not intimidated by eggheads. He does none of his own primary research, and instead scours academic journals to find interesting ideas -- he collects experiments and experimenters. He is a translator and a synthesizer, and comes up with catchy, sprightly titled theories to explain what he has seen. Some have called him a parasite. He has called himself a parasite.
It seems to me there’s always been a bit of snarkiness attached to discussions of Gladwell’s work. This is often the case for books that have become commercially successful, which is something that seems particularly to stick in the collective academic craw. There is a weird hostility in the reviews of Gladwell’s books that is directed not at the big-haired guy himself who, like a puppy, nips at the heels of academics and then relishes the opportunity to render their work into fluid, transparent prose, but toward those many people who have made Gladwell famous: his readers. No one matches the caustic condescension of Richard Posner, who said, in a review of Gladwell’s Blink, that “it’s a book for people who don’t read books.”
The reviews of Outliers, Gladwell’s latest book, show that even a New Yorker writer can go too far. People are now attacking Malcolm Gladwell as a kind of brand. The critiques boil down to a few things, one of which is that he doesn’t take into account evidence that refutes his theories. In other words, he’s not doing careful scholarship. But we all know that even careful scholarship is a game of picking and choosing -- it just includes more footnotes acknowledging this. And Gladwell never pretends to be doing scholarship.
Gladwell is also accused of being too entertaining. He takes creaky academic work and breathes Frankensteinian life into it. He weaves anecdotes together, creating a tapestry that builds to an argument that seems convincing. This, some reviewers have claimed, is like perpetuating fraud on the (non-academic) reading public: because Gladwell makes it so much fun to follow him on his intellectual journey, he’s going to convince people of things that aren’t provably, academically true. He will lull the hoi polloi into thinking they’re reading something serious.
Which is, of course, the most common complaint about Gladwell: He’s not serious enough. He’s having too much fun playing with his ideas. And, really, you can’t be Serious when you’re raking in so much coin. Anyone who gets paid four million bucks for a book that mines academic work -- and not necessarily the stuff that is agreed to be Important -- is going to become a target. His speaking fees are beyond the budgets of most colleges. In this way, his career is now similar to that of David Sedaris, who can command an impressive audience and still be dissed by the literary folks. Everyone who’s anyone knows that you can’t sell a lot of books and be a serious writer. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Or Toni Morrison.
I don’t see Gladwell as a social scientist-manqué, or a philosopher wannabe. Instead, I read him more like an essayist. I think of his books as well-written, research-packed, extended essays. Let me show you the evils of imperialism by telling you a story about the time in Burma when I was forced to shoot an elephant. Let’s look at this (bad) academic prose and think about the relationship between politics and the English language. But instead of using his own experiences, he builds on work done by others. He uses a wry, quirky approach and blithely ignores the received wisdom and pieties of academe. He doesn’t seek out the researcher who’s highly regarded within her field; he looks for people who are doing things he finds interesting.
Gladwell reminds me of the kind of student I knew in college, the nerd who takes weird and arcane courses and then rushes from the lecture hall excited about some idea the professor has mentioned in passing and goes straight to the library to pursue it himself. He stays up all night talking about it, and convincing you that even though you were in the same class, and heard the same reference, you have somehow missed something. Maybe not something big, but at least something really, really cool.
Perhaps I have more trust in readers than to believe that they can be so easily bought off by a good story. And I wish that academics, instead of pillorying Gladwell for being good at translating complicated ideas, would study the way he does it and apply some portion of his method to their own work: He makes mini trade books of monographs. Surely this is a lesson worth learning. He uses the narrative art of the magazine writer to animate ideas. He profiles theories the way Gay Talese or Joan Didion did celebrities.
The audacity Gladwell shows in his writing, connecting seemingly disparate things and working hard, yet with apparent effortlessness, to make the ideas engaging, gives me hope for the future of books. It makes me feel better to see folks buying Gladwell rather than the swimmer Michael Phelps’s memoir or vampire novels -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. Yet this same audacity is what gets Gladwell into hot water with academics. He’s not supposed to do this.
Unless you are an aged physicist, you don’t really get to write books that “purport to explain the world.” You can, of course, try to explicate tiny portions of it. Science writers like James Gleick and Jonathan Weiner can go a lot further than most scientists in terms of making arcane principles understandable to the Joe the Plumbers of the reading world and no one gets bent of out shape. Perhaps it’s because of the assumption that scientists, with a few notable (often British) exceptions, are not supposed to be able to write books that normal people can read. Social scientists and historians are, however, expected to be able to know what is interesting and important about their work and present it to the public. Brand name thinkers like Susan Sontag and Martha Nussbaum can take on big ideas. But these people are experts; journalists shouldn’t try this at home.
What I love about Gladwell is that his writing is like his hair. You can see it as arrogant or scary (he writes about being stopped more frequently by cops when he had a big afro), or you can see it as playful and audacious. This is why, of course, so many reviews mention it; he has the right hair for his work.
One final, dour complaint about Gladwell has to do with his relentless cheeriness. He thinks that people are basically good, though he understands that sometimes circumstances aren’t. I can’t abide high-brow literary novelists who trash fiction that “cops out” with a happy ending. Maybe I’m hopelessly low-brow: I still love Jane Austen and Shakespeare’s comedies. The academic response to most things is generally: it’s more complicated than that. And sure, much of the time it is. But if something’s artfully crafted, I’m willing to cut the author some slack. I don’t ever expect to be thoroughly persuaded of anything; I’m characterologically skeptical and like to do the thinking on my own. Gladwell’s books invite me into a conversation. I think that’s part of the job of a good book.
For me, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books is like watching Frank Capra movies. Just because they make you feel good and keep you entertained doesn’t mean that they’re not doing valuable work or tackling hard and real issues and ideas. Sure, someone else could have handled it differently. George Bailey might have finally committed suicide; the bank in Bedford Falls could have asked for a government bailout. But right now, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to read books that are a little more hopeful. And yes, audacious.
Rachel Toor teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. She writes a monthly column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com.
Among the hundreds of new regulations in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) passed by Congress in August 2008 are new mandates that require colleges -- and, more specifically, college owned or operated bookstores -- to publish the ISBN numbers and retail prices for textbooks, other trade titles, and related course materials that faculty recommend and students buy for classes. The new HEOA mandates reflect, in part, Congressional concern, echoed in many state legislatures in recent years, about the rising cost of textbooks. The ISBN mandate becomes operational in July 2010.
No question that the ISBN mandate will fuel changes already under way that affect how and where college students buy textbooks. Student Monitor’s fall 2008 survey of full-time undergraduates reveals that 16 percent of undergraduates “bought most of their textbooks online,” up from 12 percent in fall 2007. Additionally, Student Monitor reports that “the share of students who purchase most of their textbooks from their on-campus bookstore continues to trend down: fewer than six in ten students (57 percent) purchased most of their textbooks at their on campus book store,” compared to 64 percent in fall 2006 and down from 72 percent in fall 2005.
College bookstores are (for-profit) service organizations: Prior to the emergence of Internet book sellers just over a decade ago, college students were largely a captive market for the (often one) campus store, usually owned and operated by the college or university (or operated under contract on behalf of the college by an agent such as Barnes & Noble or the Follett Higher Education Group). The money saving options were not where to buy (which store) but what to buy (new or used). Until recently, for most students at most institutions, the primary source for new or used books and related course materials was the “college” store.
Enter the Internet. As with other products and services, Internet merchants provide price and service competition for local providers, in this case college bookstores. The emergence of Internet book merchants -- initially Amazon, followed by Web-based resellers specifically targeting college students such as BigWords, CampusBooks, TextBooks, and others -- offered students new options: the Internet brought a new transparency to the prices of both new and used textbooks. Case in point: in fall 2008 my daughter, a UCLA student, purchased a new accounting book from Amazon for $135 that the ASUCLA store was selling for $176.
There’s little argument that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs and retail prices brings a new transparency to the textbook market. It facilitates the efforts of students to shop for books based on price. Concurrently, the ISBN mandate poses new challenges for colleges, college stores, and the firms that operate college stores (and the store Web sites) under contract.
Ahead of the regulations due later this year from the Education Department, campus administrators, college store directors, and, yes, even campus lawyers are parsing the HEOA legislation (Section 133) and also reviewing bookstore operations, Web sites, and current contracts to assess compliance issues. For example, as reported by Theresa Rowe, the CIO at Michigan's Oakland University in a recent Educause listserv post, the campus counsel at Oakland recently rejected an ISBN–link-system solution incorporated into the campus portal provided by Barnes and Noble, the contract operator of the campus store for Oakland.
Campus counsel at Oakland ruled that the B&N link-solution is "not legally acceptable [under HEOA] given that [the university’s] contract with Barnes and Noble does not obligate [B&N to provide the ISBN linking service]; hence, if [B&N] fail[s] to comply with the statute Oakland would have no one to point the proverbial finger at.… if we did, [simply] saying that B&N screwed up is not a good defense to a claim that [the university] failed to comply with federal law."
No doubt lawyers at other institutions may have different perspectives on the linking solutions provided by store operators. Still, it is a safe bet that these contracts will be carefully reviewed -- and many will be revised -- following the release of the regulations governing the ISBN mandate later this year.
While the new transparency that accompanies the publication of ISBNs may be good for Internet book sellers, it will also be a catalyst for new services that target college students and also colleges and universities.
For example, Apple’s student-oriented iPhone ad broadcast during the NCAA men's basketball championship game on April 6 highlighted SnapTell, an iPhone app that supports “photo commerce:” take a picture of a book (including college textbooks) and the SnapTell app will link you to multiple Web sites that sell the book. On the institutional side, Verba Software, a Cambridge, Mass., firm launched by some recent Harvard grads, offers an application that links course lists to IBSNs and then searches the Web for the best prices for new and used textbooks and course tomes.
Internet book resellers that target college students and the textbook market proclaim that they save students money. (Hey, Amazon saved me and my daughter $40 last fall!) So we can expect the ISBN mandate to foster more competition between bricks and clicks -- the campus store on (or near the quad) vs. the on-screen Internet reseller. The ISBN mandate will accelerate the demise of a once captive market: college students buying books and course materials at the local college bookstore.
Many will applaud the increased competition because students will save bucks on books. Still others who lament the decline of “community bookstores” to chain stores, big box stores, and Internet booksellers will also lament what may be the demise of campus stores, as they continue to lose the annuity-like revenue stream from textbooks and course materials that has been essential to their operations.
But let’s also acknowledge that the HEOA mandate to publish ISBNs will not resolve the recurring complaints about (and some might add structural problems affecting) the suggestedretailprice of textbooks and course materials -- and by extension the wholesale price of course materials.
Here other factors are at play that include accelerated updates to stem the used book market, the costs of developing ancillary materials for faculty and maintaining web sites for students and professors, routine and appropriate development and production costs, modest author royalties and, yes even a little profit. Regardless of what I paid for my daughter’s accounting textbook last fall, these factors and others all affected the wholesale price that both Amazon and the UCLA store paid for the book assigned for my daughter’s accounting class. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)
Kenneth C. Green
Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project. Disclosure: Amazon, Apple, Follett Higher Education Group, and Verba Software are corporate sponsors of the project.
Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.
Much of traditional academe doesn't know what to make of for-profit higher education. Is it to be emulated or feared? Gary A. Berg, dean of extended education at California State University Channel Islands, studied the sector -- and received extensive access to University of Phoenix administrators and faculty members. The result is Lessons From the Edge: For-Profit and Nontraditional Higher Education in America, recently published as part of the American Council on Education/Praeger Series on Higher Education.
The internment of Japanese Americans in World War II remains a shameful episode in American history. In From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II (University of Illinois Press), Allan W. Austin focuses on a positive event during the internments. More than 4,000 college students were allowed to leave the camps to enroll in colleges -- provided that the colleges would accept them and were not on the West Coast.
Can professors nationwide band together to battle the clout of Texas school boards? One professor, fed up with the influence of Texas educators on children's knowledge of sex and science, is trying to find out.
Sean G. Massey, the professor, got angry last fall, as he was reading about the latest skirmishes between textbook publishers and Texas school officials.