The Tipping Point is the kind of book you can absolutely tear through: non-fiction, no flowery or complex language, interesting and straightforward. Not necessarily beyond criticism or response, but structured in such a way that you can accept conclusions provisionally as you scamper forwards. It’s really quite a fascinating book, much more because of the examples than because of the analysis. Looking at things as diverse as differences between Sesame Street and Blues Clues or the changes in policing styles in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, Gladwell makes some interesting and unexpected points.
Also fascinating is Gladwell’s discussion of relationships as external memory systems. It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense of me and it’s a property that I can see myself building into relationships. An example of that would be through the creation of shared jokes. They are both badges of identity and examples of the way that information can be more effectively held and understood collectively. When Gladwell explains that losing relationships of an intense romantic sort can feel like losing a piece of one’s mind, I understand it completely. Wandering around in the High Commissioner’s house, where hundreds of people were mingling, I was acutely aware of how much better I could have dealt with it had Kate or Meghan been with me.
I feel something similar about intellectual expertise. When I find myself confronted by a question that I know a friend of mine outside Oxford could help answer or understand, it’s frustrating. Indeed, I try to internally simulate them, as an alternative to actually having them around. Pseudo-Tristan is the resident expert on many kinds of philosophy, and likewise for many others in many other fields. Moreover, anything I think or understand in those fields is emotionally connected with those people: radio is connected with Alison, anything military with Neal, anything diplomatic with Fernando, anything photographic with Tristan, etc, etc, etc. As a way of relating to information, it’s one that feels good – because it puts you in the middle of a social web that mimics the diversity of the world, while also creating a sense of joint purpose and a common understanding in excess of the individual one. It’s the sort of thing that makes you feel connected and purposeful.
That’s the big project right now, after all: defining and cementing an identity. That’s why everyone is posting little quizzes about themselves on their blogs. Which Lord of the Rings Character are You? Which Muppet? Which Colour of Anime Hair? Understanding the world, by understanding our place in it, especially relative to things that we care about: defining favourite musical artists, coffee shops, and films. It may seem trite or consumerist. On some levels, I suppose it is. But it is also the projection of a fundamental and powerful drive.
The Tipping Point is a book that you read like a life manual. That’s not to say you accept everything in it; no manual is perfect or always perfectly appropriate. It means that you evaluate it and internalize bits of it as practice, rather than as knowledge. They are very satisfying sorts of books to read. They are exciting, because they make you hope you will soon understand the world better. At the same time, you are aware of the danger of such direct lessons: there is always the lingering concern that it might be cheap, shoddy, ill-thought-out in a way that lessons learned gradually and indirectly feel less likely to be. There is also a fear – grounded, I suspect, in too much contact with academia – that it is too externally comprehensible. Anything that could be grasped by someone with no particular background other than interest is automatically a bit suspicious, quite possibly dangerous. That said, it strikes me as an impulse that it makes sense to fight. For those willing to do so, I recommend having a look at this book.