The Hot Seat: Malcolm Gladwell

There's a curious brain under all that hair.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

It's no secret that the future of publishing, as it exists today, is in doubt. Popular opinion has it that books will soon go the way of the pterodactyl or Zubaz pants. Well, someone forgot to tell New Yorker staff writer, author and enemy of paradigmatic thinking Malcolm Gladwell. Despite (or because of) his counterintuitive opinions, everything the man writes seems to turn into best-seller gold. His latest book, What the Dog Saw, compiles his favorite pieces from among the many he's written for The New Yorker since he started there in 1996. On the surface, it seems like this would be his least controversial book, since all of the "adventures," as Gladwell calls them, had been previously published in the magazine. But nonetheless, it's already stirred up some spirited debate.

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So Steven Pinker really let you have it in the Times Book Review.
Oh yeah. I never imagined I would get the cover of The New York Times Book Review. To get taken that seriously is quite a compliment.

That was an interesting review—equal parts complimentary and patronizing. I can't believe you were getting flak from a fellow Canadian.
Yeah, the whole thing was very intramural, wasn't it?

What kind of positives do you take from a grilling like that? On one hand, he does call you a genius...
That's good enough for me. The thing about bad reviews is that they're self-correcting. So that if someone makes meaningful criticisms, I think people take them seriously. If people make criticisms that aren't that way, then I think readers discount the review. It sort of doesn't matter. People will read into it however they want to read into it, and react accordingly. And I don't feel like I need to be ashamed to show my face. I sort of thought he was being, um, a little argumentative, and perhaps a trace condescending, but I'm used to it. He's a professor at Harvard and I'm not.

I'm hoping we're seeing the beginning of an intellectual rivalry along the lines of Newton and Leibniz.
[Laughs] No, I don't think I could match up with Steven Pinker when it comes to that kind of thing. Let's be clear, I have enormous respect for him. His books are really extraordinary. How the Mind Works and the language books are really incredible. And I'm not thin-skinned.

Well, you both have very impressive heads of hair. You have that in common, at least.
Yeah, we do. His is bigger than mine these days.

Do you use conditioner?
Do I use conditioner? [Laughs] Yeah, periodically. Pinker and I both have low-maintenance hairstyles.

One of my favorite pieces in the book is "The Art of Failure." It's like you were writing to me personally!
Yeah, it's one of my favorite pieces, too. It's the first time I ever wrote about sports for The New Yorker. I always wanted to write about sports for The New Yorker, and I could never figure out how. That was my first triumph in that area.

I always think to myself, What would Reggie Miller do?, when I'm up against a deadline or something.
Yes, he's interesting, just because he's simply a great shooter. So the likelihood of him hitting three or four spectacular shots in a row is just higher. It's what you would expect of a great shooter. He happened to enjoy it in the moment of greatest attention at the Garden.

Ever wonder if you would've gotten your sweet gig at The New Yorker if your name had been something less distinctive, like, say, Mike Brown?
[Laughs] I've never thought about that. That's the kind of question I am interested in. Who knows? People often tell me that my name is the name of a really old English guy. If that's a stereotype that helps me, then yes, maybe it plays some role.

Gladwell reads from What the Dog Saw at the Union Square Barnes & Noble Dec 10.

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