Sunday, February 22, 2009

Outliers: The Story of Class Struggle

I'm still a big Malcolm Gladwell fan even through Blink was disappointing and I don't deny some of things that his critics hold against him . Still, I was surprised how much I enjoyed Outliers: The Story of Success and how many times I have revisited the book's anecdotes in my mind.

Recently we had our neighbours over for dinner and they had noticed Outliers on my bookshelf. I pulled it down, handed it over and just as I started to tell them told them how much I enjoyed it, my neighbour opened its cover and started reading the inside jacket cover, which begins...

Why do some people succeed far more than others?
There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them -- at such things their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. The story of success is more complex -- and a lot more interesting -- than it initially appears.

It didn't take long - seconds, really - for my neighbour to hand the book back to me. I stopped my pitch because I knew that by that time it was too late : she thought that I was trying to sell her a self-help book.

But that marketing copy is the not the book I read. The stories that I remember are the ones that describe and espouse education and work. Now I don't believe in soul-eating busyness but it would be a sin not to acknowledge how much labour - work that sometimes is carried across generations - that immigrants and the poor must continuously and tirelessly shoulder until the stars align and their children can enter the promised land of The Middle Class.

Gladwell missed a chance to to express just how much 'white privilege' is actually worth. I'm not the only one who thinks so:

But I still can't help but feel that Outliers represents a squandered opportunity for Gladwell—himself an outlier, an enormously talented and influential writer and the descendant of an African slave—to make a major contribution to our ongoing discourse about nature, nurture, and race. [Slate]

I guess having to write books that stay away from such dangerous subjects is the price of success.

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