As part of my “New Years Goals”, in accordance with my non-resolution manifesto that I published on the first of the year, I am trying to read more for fun. Anyone who has ever dappled in higher education knows that you read all the time, but it feels like work, often something that you long to be rid of and yearn to put down at the end of a long day. Picking up a book at the end of a 14 hour grad school day feels like taking a vacation in December to the North Pole, a little redundant and exhausting. But as of today, I finished my first book of the New Year and what I have found so far has been surprising.
For starters, reading on the train is a delight. Especially on longer commutes. I’ve found that carrying my kindle with me wherever I roam is an easy way to fit reading for fun into the natural rhythm of my day. When I’m say taking a 35 minute train ride out to Brooklyn to grab dinner with a friend, instead of spending that time watching the curiosities that come and go, I can fade away into a different world and spend that time plugging through a book. I’ve come really to enjoy that time.
Today, thanks largely in part to Winter Storm Niko for shutting down school and cause the city to purr to a halt, I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Although Gladwell first published the work back in February of 2000, much of what he writes rings poignantly true today. He argues, through a series of case studies that in every sort of epidemic there is a “tipping point”, a point at which what has happened to a select few becomes the fodder for a much larger group. The flu or the AIDS crisis serving as primary medical examples for what Gladwell eventually argues can be a social model as well. Whether it be fashion trends, smoking habits, or political ideologies the tipping point model rings true. It was impossible to detach Gladwell’s argument from the general chaotic climate in which we find ourselves today in the United States.
What I found empowering about Gladwell’s book however was how, through his model, he subtlety encourages everyone to identify their role in the larger order and use it to bring about social change. He separates people into different groups, each of which has its own shortcomings and its own irreplaceable strengths, without which society at large would greatly suffer. I fall into his category of “connectors”, people who are the spoke in a hub of networks, bringing people together through themselves as the common connection. Most people who know a connector could identify at least one person, if not a half dozen friends, that they have come into contact with because of that connector. And as Gladwell outlined this person-type I was intrigued because I had never so perfectly identified with a “type” before. All my life I have had a foot in every group. I had a hard time in high school because I was notoriously non-cliquey at school. I had friends in nearly every social circle and that has remained to be true until now.
Now, in a climate so deeply divided, where the white liberal elite of which I am apart have so clearly isolated and disengaged the rest of the population to bring our country to this seemingly insurmountable precipice, I as a connector must take up my armor and do my part. Now is not a time for connectors to loose their ability to draw people together across what would be insurmountable differences. Instead, I must rise up to the calling and help bring our country to a tipping point, one of kindness and justice and love.
Political musing aside, The Tipping Point is a remarkable read. Engaging, lighthearted, easy to read. Gladwell is able to condense an immense amount of sociological and epidemiological study into quippy chapters that synthesize, analyze and summarize complex work for the average reader to enjoy. His case studies are so varied in topic that whether you are a lawyer, high school student, stay at home parent, investment banker, elementary school teacher, retired grandparent, or struggling grad school student you will find each case to be fascinating and approachable. Furthermore, they are broadening. I learned about fashion trend setting in the East Village and the Columbine shooter; the rate of teenage suicide in Micronesia and the impetus for Sesame Street. The cases were eye-opening and revealing of much larger social patterns that mirror our biological tendencies and in each case there was something with which I could identify.
Lastly, The Tipping Point, is a book that doesn’t tell you what to do with what you have learned. I was anticipating some great call to action at the end of the concluding chapter, or at the very least, in the afterward, the absence of which left me rather stunned. Gladwell allows what he has presented to sink in, to ruminate in you, so that in the end you may try to apply his findings to your own experience of the social order of the world. He doesn’t offer any quizzes to help you decide what kind of person you are or offer any take away “how-to” messages. He puts forth his writing and hopes your own awareness is keen enough that you can identify for yourself who you are and what you ought to do given what it is you now know. He lets his words speak and gives room for your responsive actions to do the rest.
I think we all need this book. We need to realize that in our words, thoughts, and deeds there are implications. That we can use our power for good and that with our help, the world just may tip toward a brighter future.
Regardless of your age, gender, background, income, religious or political leanings, I recommend you give Gladwell’s writing a go. I’m sure I’ll be returning to his other books Blink, David and Goliath, Outliers, et al. but for now I’m going to embark on a different reading adventure. Stay tuned.
Photo Credit: Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little Brown.