Annals of Publishing

Saw Malcolm Gladwell speak a couple days ago. Just an ordinary author reading, right? Well, apparently not. He was accompanied by an editor from The New Yorker. The host first introduced the editor, who talked for about five minutes about the magazine, and how its 75th anniversary celebration was more an opportunity for it to think about its direction in the coming age than a resting on past glories. Then he went on about a bunch of events the magazine sponsors in New York, since I'm sure all the Seattleites at the event were planning to schedule their regular trips to The City to coincide with the festivities. That said, he reused a reference from earlier in his speechlet to give a one-sentence introduction to Gladwell. There were also copies of the magazine available in the back of the room, and all present were encouraged to take one.

I think the event had the opposite effect on me of that intended. Gladwell was great -- he's a very articulate writer, geeky in a good way, and very sharp at bringing in disparate concepts. But the whole affair was sort of like when the Soviet athletes would come to the U.S. and their handlers would answer all the questions for them at the press conference: I had the strange feeling that if Gladwell started speaking about certain topics, the editor dude would have barged in with an angry voice to proclaim that the interview was over and Mr. Gladwell was very tired.

By way of reference, his web site,, has most of his writings for the magazine. The quality varies somewhat, but at his best, he's just great. He has a very distinctive style, one which I'm kind of a sucker for. Introduce a story, note the general patterns, start talking about the prototypical version of that paradigm, and then pull in some idea from way out in left field that completely and clearly characterizes that pattern. His article about weight loss, for example, winds up characterizing weight loss books as conversion narratives. I first met him through his article The Coolhunt. At the time I read it, I thought it one of the most fatuous things I'd ever read, and I quoted the following passage from in my collection of memorable quotes:

In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes cool to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermeneutic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot even be adequately described to them.

I didn't attach any commentary: I thought its self-evident preposterousness would be readily apparent to the reader. A year or so passed, during which someone finally explained hermeneutics to me properly. Then a friend asked me about the quote, and I started to explain how stupid it was, but as I reread it, I realized that it was actually a really sharp observation. It was in this instant that I became a Malcolm Gladwell fan.