Gladwell’s Strangers & Better Choices

Book cover of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell in simple white with black text. Blue and yellow conversation bubbles overlap in the middle.

My reading relationship with Malcolm Gladwell started with The Tipping Point in 2000. It continued with Blink (2005), Outliers (2008) and What the Dog Saw (2009). David and Goliath came out in 2013. And now, Talking to Strangers. You might say I’m a fan of his work.

Gladwell is a meticulous researcher and teacher. He asks questions most of us don’t think to ask and unearths stories we don’t already know. He makes us think and expands our knowledge about human behavior. The well-written, deeply researched evidence tends to lead to a practical conclusion. For example: If a city administration makes a point of painting over transit graffiti right after the vehicles have been defaced, the vandals will eventually give up! (The Tipping Point) Silly me for expecting something similar from Talking to Strangers.

Oh, the evidence is still there and so is the research. Gladwell tears apart theories about lying and human behavior in the face of stress. He talks to FBI interrogators and others and creates a deeply credible case for why we humans are so terrible at reading each other. That part is no less fascinating than his other books. It’s the conclusion that leaves me wanting.

The text builds into an interwoven case for understanding why we so often misunderstand our fellow humans but the anticipated final chapter comes and goes like an unexpected stop in highway traffic. I was left wondering, what the hell was that about? There’s no construction, no remnants of an accident – nothing to explain why he slammed on the brakes! That’s how Talking to Strangers ends.

I’m imagining three possible scenarios for Gladwell’s virtual abdication from creating a satisfying conclusion for his latest book.

  1. He misread his contract and rushed to get the manuscript in on time. His editor, not as bright or successful as the author, didn’t question it.
  2. He didn’t think we’d notice.
  3. There is no conclusion to draw, nothing that we can really do about not knowing how to analyze people we don’t know, but Gladwell wanted to avoid writing those words.

I’ve haven’t been this disappointed in a book since John Grisham fell under the delusion that he could write anything other than a legal thriller.

Read it for the mind-expanding research about the effectiveness of torturing terrorists and how police officers are instructed to handle traffic stops. Just don’t expect it to wrap up with a nice bow on top. It doesn’t. Maybe it shouldn’t have even tried.

If book-giving is part of your Christmas plans, there are better choices this year. For anyone who’s suffering loss or simply a fan of Erin Davis, I highly recommend her best-seller, Mourning Has Broken: Love, Loss and Reclaiming Joy. For a fun, fictional read for the music-lover in your life there’s Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. You’ll swear it’s a real rock biography. Reese Witherspoon is adapting it for a TV series.

On my must-read list is A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz and the Red Power Movement. I had the great luck of sitting with Richard’s first cousin, Pat Oakes (mother of actor Brandon Oakes) on our recent flight to San Francisco. Until she told us, we weren’t aware that our tickets to tour Alcatraz would put us there on the 50th anniversary of what was known then as the “Indian” occupation of the island. Richard Oakes developed one of the first native studies courses in the US. He was shot and killed at the age of 30 but is still celebrated widely all over America, and certainly at Alcatraz on that weekend.

Do you have a book recommendation you’d like to share? Put it in the comments and help your fellow last-minute shoppers! (Note: comments are moderated and may not show up instantly.) Thank you!

3 thoughts on “Gladwell’s Strangers & Better Choices”

  1. I LOVED Daisy Jones! Can’t wait to see what Reese Witherspoon does with it! I was going to recommend Gladwells latest to someone, thanks for the heads up.. two books I’ve enjoyed recently: ” The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michele Richardson, or “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert.

  2. Wow, Lisa – thank you so much for the lovely recommendation. You’re part of my story – so many years of friendship and support – and you are the gift that truly keeps on giving. Thank you again. Sorry to hear that one of my favourite authors, Mr. Gladwell, has disappointed. His books are usually impeccable.

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