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Geek Pop Star

Malcolm Gladwell at the Pop!Tech conference last month in Maine.  

The bigger criticism of Gladwell is not that he’s unoriginal but that he’s unserious—that he takes substantive academic work and applies it to frivolous things (epidemiology and Hush Puppies, anyone?). While such an approach may endear him to business elites, it often infuriates cultural and political ones. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has said, “What Gladwell is marketing is nothing but marketing—the marketer’s view of the world. But that view of the world is, I’m afraid, idiotic.” The judge and legal scholar Richard Posner, in a scathing review of Blink for TNR, complained that it was “written like a book intended for people who do not read books.” Meanwhile, Carlin Romano, the influential literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, used his review of Blink to give its author a hazing and an ultimatum: “Gladwell, one fears, has come to his own tipping point, or—to be fuddy-duddy—fork in the road. This way, guru. That way, serious writer.”

Gladwell tends to dismiss this line of attack. (“It was a sending a man to do a boy’s work,” he says of Posner’s review. “The guy’s like this legal Einstein, and he’s slumming it with Blink?”) But when he talks about his previous books, he sometimes sounds as if he agrees with his critics. “When I read Tipping Point now, it does seem more like a product of a lighter time,” he concedes. “I was really interested in marketing at the time, and that’s not that weighty an issue.” Blink, he says, “is very kind of distant. It’s, ‘This is a lot of cool stuff! Do with it as you will!’ ”

For all of his pop sensibility, Gladwell sees himself as something of a fuddy-duddy. If, as Michael Kinsley once observed, Al Gore was an old person’s idea of a young person, then Gladwell is a young person’s idea of an old person’s idea of a young person. Beneath the crazy hair, the slobby-chic clothes, and the buzzword-filled vocabulary is an old-fashioned guy who grew up among Mennonites in rural Ontario, didn’t have a TV until he was 23, and still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”

Gladwell’s friends insist that he doesn’t court fame, or enjoy it. “I think he tries to insulate himself in such a way that his life is as normal as possible,” says Jacob Weisberg, the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group. Once a regular at New York media parties, the 45-year-old Gladwell does most of his socializing these days in more intimate settings, including a regular biweekly “boys’ night out” dinner he has with Weisberg and a handful of other close friends, including comedy writer Steve Sherrill and Columbia law professor Tadi Farhadian (the only regular woman). “It’s weird to be recognized by someone you don’t know,” Gladwell says. “The asymmetry of it is unsettling.”

What’s a put-upon guru to do? Gladwell isn’t about to give back his advances or stop speaking at business conferences, but he is trying to take his writing in a more meaningful direction. Where he once focused on cool-hunting and T-shirts in his New Yorker articles, now it’s IQ tests and pension systems. “There is a kind of underlying social vision in a lot of his pieces,” says Henry Finder, his editor at the magazine. “The basic vision says how we fare in life isn’t just determined by ourselves and our character, it’s determined by a lot of other things that are beyond our control.” Gladwell has expanded that social vision into a book that he describes as “more political” and “a little angrier” than his previous efforts. “The interesting part of this now is trying to figure out what you do with the idea,” he says, explaining the new approach he took with Outliers, “as opposed to before, where the interesting part was just explaining the idea.” Bruce Headlam, a childhood friend of Gladwell’s who’s now an editor at the New York Times, calls Outliers “the book that’s closest to Malcolm’s heart.”

“When I wrote Tipping Point, my expectation was it would be read by my mom and that was it,” Gladwell says. “I had no notion I was creating a kind of public document. Now I realize I have a bit of a podium, so it seems silly to put the podium to waste.” Which raises the question: With his new book that purports to tell “the story of success,” has Gladwell finally found an idea substantial enough to justify his own?