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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.

 Criticism of Gladwell often strikes me as a little unfair, but this retort reeks of false magnanimity: If all he cared about was engaging readers, he should be thrilled they’re expending the mental energy needed to get worked up about his writing. But he’s not looking for engagement; he’s looking for genuflection.

Klosterman, meanwhile, would be amused by genuflection, though he shouldn’t be: Now that David Foster Wallace has died, there’s no writer with a better understanding of pop culture and how it affects the American psyche. Given the dominance of pop—music, art, movies—amongst the masses, it’s fair to say that there’s no writer who better understands the American cultural landscape as the Baby Boomers recede into the distance and the Gen X/Millennials come to the fore. 

It’s a different expertise than that of, say, David Brooks, who is more attuned to the inner workings of upper-middle class life. Within Klosterman’s circles, phrases like Status Income Disequilibrium don’t mean much; grappling with the importance of Kurt Cobain’s death carries far greater resonance for a far broader swath of this society. That may be a sad comment on American intellectual life, but it’s almost certainly true.

Klosterman’s career as a journalist, music and film critic, and cultural essayist has kept him in constant touch with society’s moving tides and afforded him an insight into the way its evolution affects everyday living and the ways we see ourselves. He explains how sitcom laugh tracks have permeated our lives so thoroughly that two friends can’t carry on a discussion without conversation-bridging titters, and why the shared failure of Werner Herzog and Ralph Nader to comprehend irony renders them incapable of navigating the modern world—and leaves the modern world unable to understand them.

But his dissection of Ralph Sampson’s career is the highlight of Eating the Dinosaur. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson,” Klosterman sheds more light on the culture of celebrity in fewer words than I would have thought possible. Sampson was a center for the Houston Rockets, and despite being a preternaturally gifted college basketball player and physical specimen unlike any the game had ever seen, he fizzled in the NBA. He has become a symbol of unfulfilled talent, shorthand for inexplicable failure. His life-defining

disappointment—along with the existence of such celebutards as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton—“are the unifying entities within this meta era. In a splintered society, they are the means through which people devoid of creativity communicate with each other. .  .  . They allow Americans to unilaterally agree on something they never needed to consciously consider.” Sampson was “needed to remind people that their own self-imposed mediocrity is better than choking on transcendence.”

If there has been a better summation of the modern impulse to build celebrities up, only to tear them down shortly thereafter, I haven’t seen it. It’s the driving ethos of our age, seen in the world of politics, celebrity, and sports, as Tiger Woods can attest, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Sonny Bunch is a writer in Washington.

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