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What we talk about when we talk about the culture.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By SONNY BUNCH
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What the Dog Saw

And Other Adventures
by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 432 pp., $27.99


Global Cooling, Patriotic
Prostitutes and Why Suicide
Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
by Steven D. Levitt
and Stephen J. Dubner
Morrow, 288 pp., $29.99


Eating the Dinosaur
by Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 256 pp., $25

In a happy coincidence, three new essay collections hit the bookstore shelves on the same day. The first was a selection of Malcolm Gladwell essays from the New Yorker; the second was the sequel to the bestselling Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner; the third was a new set of ruminations by the pop culture guru Chuck Klosterman.

That What the Dog Saw and SuperFreakonomics would suck up most of the oxygen upon release—and that Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur would get lost in the shuffle—is not especially surprising. Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Blink—as well as Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics—all remain on the New York Times’s paperback nonfiction bestseller list years after their initial publication. Indeed, Gladwell is competing with himself for the top spot on the hardcover list: Both Outliers and What the Dog Saw resided in the top 10 more than a month after Dog’s publication. Klosterman, meanwhile, has been well received critically and commercially, but flies under the radar. This is unfortunate, since his intuitive grasp of pop—the dominant mode of American cultural discourse—gives him more to say about modern American culture than any of the others. 

Gladwell and the Freaky twosome tackle life from the same basic perspective: How can assumptions be turned on their heads, and what do those assumptions teach us about the way people look at the world? Indeed, their frame of reference is so similar that the same sources are sometimes used by both in the course of making the same arguments. In a chapter touching on the impact of birthdate on future life successes, Dubner and Levitt are forced to note that 

A few years ago, we wrote a New York Times Magazine column, “A Star Is Made,” about the birthdate bulge and Ericsson’s research on talent. We planned to expand upon it for a chapter in SuperFreakonomics. Alas, we ended up discarding the chapter, half-written, for in the time between the column and finishing this book, the field became suddenly crowded with other books that highlighted Ericsson’s research, including Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell).

SuperFreakonomics attempts to show that actions often have unintended consequences. They argue, for instance, that it is safer (statistically speaking) to drive home drunk than to walk home drunk. The explanation they give might not fly with the local sheriff after you blow a .13 into the breathalyzer, but it makes plenty of sense to economists and those looking to spice up their cocktail party conversation. Oddly—or maybe not, given the nature of things—Dubner and Levitt’s argument in favor of loading up for a highway booze cruise has sparked far less controversy than their comments about global warming. For daring to compare global warming alarmists to religious cultists, for refusing to acquiesce to blind panic and moral preening, for pointing out that human activity accounts for only a tiny portion of carbon dioxide emissions and reducing them to zero would be impossibly expensive, they have been attacked from the left as callous contrarians more concerned with making an interesting argument than in solving the world’s problems. (Needless to say, we didn’t see the same reaction when Dubner and -Levitt suggested that legalizing abortion led to the decline in crime during the mid-1990s.) 

Gladwell’s new collection begins with the personal profiles he excels at before turning to the grander think pieces. More ink has been spilled on Gladwell than almost any other nonfiction writer in recent years: His books have been derided as both counterintuitive claptrap and mind-numbing banalities, sometimes within the same pieces of criticism. It’s both easy and satisfying to describe him as a glib charlatan: how else to explain the massive sales figures that accompany his work? 

Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else’s and says, angrily, “I don’t buy it.” Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.

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