Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell: Overdrive

You know how every month on the cover of Glamour and Marie Claire it says "25 Sex Tips!" or "Lose Weight!" and on the Oprah and Martha Stewart Magazines it says "Get Organized!" and "Be Happier!" and after a few months of falling for it and buying the magazine you realize that every single lose-weight article says to exercise and eat better, and every single get-organized article says reduce your possessions and buy a shoe rack, and now you don't have to buy the magazine, you can just guess at the contents.

(As a sidenote, this is also the problem with many articles---you polish you shoes by buying polish and using a cloth to apply it; you rent an apartment by visiting several apartments in your price range and picking your favorite, etc.)

In general, I don't want to read things where I can guess what the author will say in advance---I want to be surprised, at least a little bit. Now I talk a lot on this blog about how essays are about a mind in action, and the easiest way to see that mind work is by watching the author's opinion change or her ideas develop over the course of a piece of writing. In Malcolm Gladwell's book review of "Overhaul," a book by the guy who was appointed to oversee the federal bailout of General Motors, Gladwell has a thesis right from the beginning, which we get in classic five-paragraph-essay style at the end of the first paragraph:
The result is fascinating—although perhaps not entirely in the ways that its author intended.

But what Gladwell goes on to say about author Steven Rattner and the book and about General Motors is quite surprising, which is to say interesting. In true essayistic fashion, there is more than meets the eye; not only is this is a book review that is secretly an essay, it is an essay ostensibly about Overhaul and General Mills that is really about the private-equity model, which buys falling apart companies, patches them up, and sells them off for a profit. And maybe it wasn't even about that, but about the self-absorption and confidence that a person has to have to take on a job that has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake---a storyline that isn't surprising in itself, but is surprising because of where we found it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Essay: Killing the Thetan

Someone just told me about a blog on religious issues called "Killing the Buddha." The first thing I read on it was an article called "Killing the Thetan," by J. C. Hallman about the recent New Yorker article on Paul Haggis and Scientology. The thing that interested me about "Killing the Thetan" is the emphasis on Hallman's process of analyzing the story, which is a nice example of a mind at work. Here's where this really hit me:

I realized there was a larger problem. When, as the writer of a piece about religion, you get too caught up in trying to color things one way or the other, when your allegiance to documented (and fact-checkable—this is The New Yorker, after all) facts takes precedence over everything else, you become blind to your own assumptions. A glaring surprise: “The Apostate” tosses around the world “cult” quite freely, and never even suggests what it might mean by the word. The piece relies on its own assumptions, and its readers’. In other words, there’s really no larger canvas that “The Apostate” seems to want to consider. It’s not going to tell us anything about cults, or religions, or, ultimately, people. It’s just a long news story.

Any time you say "I realized. . . ." there's a mind turning corners, tracking down a lead. And then there's a nice natural mystery set up (What?? What did you realize?) which creates built-in interest for the reader.

Some of the article is a bit messy and confusing, but I'd rather have a mess than a straightforward and unprobing piece.