Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell, Author of What the Dog Saw
Fritz Lenneman: Your New Yorker stories and best-selling books are on many readers' "first read" list. Are there any writers who you are sure to never miss?
Malcolm Gladwell: I will read anything that Michael Lewis writes, as well as Janet Malcolm. And I'm a huge fan of many of the writers at the New Yorker, especially Adam Gopnik and Larissa MacFarquhar.
FL: What do you read for pleasure?
MG: Thrillers! Spy novels! I have literally read hundreds of them. I've read everything by Lee Child, Stephen Hunter, John le Carré and Daniel Silva. My favorite book of the year? Stone's Fall by Iain Pears. He might be the best mystery/thriller writer alive.
FL: In reviewing previously published stories for the What the Dog Saw, were there any that surprised you?
MG: The story that begins the collection is a profile of Ron Popeil—the infomercial king who invented the Showtime rotisserie. I wrote that almost 10 years ago and hadn't read it since. It's one of my favorites. What comes back to you, when you read over something you wrote long ago, is not the story itself, but the experiences you had while reporting and writing the story. And all of a sudden I remembered sitting in Ron Popeil's kitchen, while he made me pasta in his pastamaker and chicken in his rotisserie oven and showed me how to use his hair spray—GLH. That was one of the most hilarious and fascinating afternoons of my life.
FL: Did any reveal new lessons?
MG: There's an article I wrote back before the financial crisis called "Open Secrets." It was prompted by the collapse of Enron, and I put it in the collection because I really think it anticipated some of the problems on Wall Street in the last two years. The lesson of Enron was that the financial system was getting more and more complex, and yet those charged with understanding and regulating it were not keeping pace. We would have been much better off if we had heeded that lesson.
MG: Aside from the Ron Popeil story, I really love the piece I wrote about being plagiarized, "Something Borrowed." And there's a piece about late bloomers (called, not surprisingly, "Late Bloomers,") that's one of my favorites as well. I wrote dozens of drafts of "Late Bloomers" before I got it right, and I'm glad I did. I think its one of the most moving pieces in the collection. It's all about a lawyer who quits his job and sits down to write fiction in his late 20s—and finally breaks through two decades later. And how? Because of the support of his wife. It's really a love story.
FL: You often write about inventions and inventors. Have you ever tried to invent anything? What inventions do you think you couldn't—or at least wouldn't want to—live without?
MG: Oh my. I could never invent anything. I think that's why inventors fascinate me so much, because they have a way of looking at the world that I could never match. I can't even do crossword puzzles, and I'm the worst Scrabble player in my family. My mind doesn't work that way. My favorite invention? Well, I'm a big runner and the person or people who invented the modern running shoe have my everlasting thanks.
FL: Your writing uncovers hidden and subconscious ways we perceive the world. What are you most curious about in yourself?
MG: I'm not very self-reflective. I think that's part of why I'm so interested in other people's lives. I've always thought of myself as kind of boring. And when you think that, you are driven to fill your life with ideas and experiences from the outside. But the thing I wonder most about myself is probably the question of introversion and extroversion. I'm quiet and shy and private. And yet I also love getting up and giving talks and telling stories. I've never really understood that combination of personality traits.
MG: I love writing about sports because they offer such a wonderful opportunity to tell stories. There's a piece in the collection called "Most Likely to Succeed," which talks about how hard it is to predict which college quarterbacks will become good professional quarterbacks—and then argues that this same problem exists for teachers. The sports example, I think, is a wonderful way of making a relatively dry topic (how to find the best teachers) come alive. I think there are a number of really interesting cases where really broad and difficult problems that we encounter in the real world have been already tackled, on a smaller level, in the sports world. It's almost as if the sports world is a kind of training ground for social issues and problems.
FL: In your most recent New Yorker story, you examine the seemingly unavoidable link between football and brain injuries. Do you think football could be made safer and still be America's most popular sport, or is the violence an essential part of its appeal?
MG: I think football can't be made safer and is probably going to die out. Think about it this way. We now have incontrovertible evidence that playing football poses a serious long-term neurological risk to some significant percentage of players on the field. Once that fact becomes widely known, what parents will allow their sons to play tackle football anymore? Especially when there are lots of other sports alternatives that aren't dangerous?
FL: Do you still watch football, or does knowing the risks to the players make it no longer enjoyable? Have you heard from other football fans about how their experience of watching football has been altered?
MG: I'm a huge football fan, and I still watch every weekend. But I have to say that the thrill is gone. I watch someone get hit in the head and all I can think of is what that means for that player's brain. After that article ran, I got tons of e-mails from football fans saying the same thing. It breaks my heart.
What is your favorite Malcolm Gladwell book or story? Share your thoughts in the comment area below.