Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Reading: Less Than the Sum of its Parts

(reflections on nonfiction by Malcolm Gladwell, THE TIPPING POINT (2001), and WORLD OF WONDERS (1972), the third novel in the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies.)

Even at 6 a.m., the heat and humidity are still oppressive.  But, I'm up early fretting about homework schedules, so that means summer's long over.   Time only to give due consideration to the last two books of the season.

Our faculty read THE TIPPING POINT looking for possible applications to our middle school.  Can we engineer a positive trend by appealing to a few charismatic trend-setters, or by paying attention to small details, or by having a memorable message?  Yes.  Can each of those methods fail?  Yes. 

THE TIPPING POINT contributed its title to our vocabulary, so that I've heard the phrase countless times in analyses of politics, the economy, and popular trends in the years since it was published.  Beyond the cover, Gladwell tells a dozen or so good stories in which a seemingly small adjustment to some behavior spreads like a virus through a whole community.    The agents of the virus are "Mavens" who collect knowledge about consumer goods or whatever; "Connectors" who retain names and interests of hundreds of acquaintances; and "Salesmen" who use persuasion and personal charisma to draw others to a product.

From these, he tries to tease out some general rules.  These are, one by one, interesting and useful.  One salesman, for example, operates by having a ready reply for the would-be customer's every doubt (You can't afford it right now, but can you afford to wait?).  The "Broken Windows" change in policemen's policies in New York seems to have worked wonders, turning the city from crime-ridden and sleazy to its present Disney-fied squeaky clean feel.

But each of his general rules works only when some other general rule doesn't apply.  A virus won't work if the context isn't right, for instance.  That's true for a sexually-transmitted virus that stops spreading when cold weather inhibits bar-hopping.   Theology students preparing a sermon on the importance of caring for strangers literally stepped over needy strangers planted in their route to the lecture hall, so long as the context was that the audience was already there waiting for the sermon.  It's a good illustration of something we all know from experience.  Nothing works, he tells us, if the trend (object, concept) isn't "sticky," and it's "sticky" if it's useful, repetitive, appealing, chemically addictive ... whatever.

Think of it as a manual, and the book is a failure.  Think of it as a collection of loosely - related anecdotes that sometimes give ideas to a teacher or any other social engineer, and it's just fine.

Excited to re-read the FIFTH BUSINESS (see an earlier posting, here), I eagerly dusted off my old 1980 paperback editions of the other two novels in the trilogy.  In brief, the three novels follow out the lives of the boy who threw a snowball containing a heavy stone at another boy who ducked, and a third boy who popped out of his mother prematurely when that rock hit her in the back of the head.  Diminishing returns.  THE MANTICORE, I wrote previously, was a fascinating essay to illustrate Jungian ideas of universal myths that have personal meaning to each of us.   The evolving relationship between patient and analyst gave that novel a forward drive to carry through its discursive narrative.  WORLD OF WONDERS begins as a kind of creepy Huckleberry Finn story of a little boy who escapes home and is set adrift in a nasty carnival side-show called "World of Wonders."  The boy, now a master magician and film actor, tells his story to the film crew.  Once that story is over, it moves to the young man's apprenticeship with the last of the Romantic actor-managers in England.

We appreciate the details of life in the carnival, life in the old-fashioned theatre, life in the provinces of Canada.  But however much Davies strains to create dramatic tension between the tale-teller and his audience, the way he did pretty successfully in THE MANTICORE,  he doesn't achieve it, here.  Reading it became a chore, and the final chapters seemed redundant.

I recall feeling that way in the 1980s, and I also recall feeling that his next trilogy, beginning with REBEL ANGELS, was better, and his earliest trilogy, beginning with LEAVEN OF MALICE, was best of all.

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