Thursday, 11 March 2010

A Year in Books 10 - The Outliers

In the last few years a new section has appeared in bookshops - "popular science" as apposed to "unpopular science" which I imagine is reserved for big unwieldy hardback books with very small print and lots of complicated formulae in them.

The trend has included titles that have sold an awful lot of copies, "Freakonomics" being one and the first book from the above author "Tipping Point" being another early example. In these books the subjects may vary widely but the pattern and style remains consistent. The science bit is kept in the background as almost a secondary thought to the idea of concepts explained through story telling. Don't get me wrong there is nothing wrong with this , the best teachers I had were the ones that could tell the best stories and it is the ideas and concepts in those stories that i remember rather than the dry facts.

I'd not read Malcolm Gladwell's previous 2 books ("Tipping Point" and "Blink") but "outliers" was recommended to me so I thought I'd give it a go.

The main concept is to look at why some people achieve so much more than others? Do any patterns emerge? Well it is not spoiling the plot to say that some patterns do emerge and you don't need to be a genius to figure out that hard work , taking opportunity , your cultural background, when and where you were born and luck all play a key part. The ideas themselves aren't really what is important, the real skill is how Gladwell gets them across. In pulling the threads together Gladwell looks at subjects as diverse as Bill Gates, The Beatles, Jewish law firms, and the Canadian Ice Hockey League. He tells his tales with great style, humour and intelligence. It is a good and interesting read, however there are 2 issues.

The first relates to the other pattern that a lot of these popular science books have is that they start with 2/3 great chapters and then the links to the big idea begin to get a bit more tenuous and the the later chapters can fade away. "Outliers" is a great example of this. It makes a great point about how which month of the year you are born in can massively impact the chances you have at succeeding at professional sport (which is why I'm not a pro golfer), how cultural norms can increase greatly the risk of an air crash, and selection based on high IQ is fundamentally flawed. However once we get on to rice growing cultures v wheat growing culture then the attention does begin to drift and the final chapter on his mother had me skim reading at my quickest.

The second point is that a bit like fast food, it is okay when you are eating it but afterwards the feeling fades - when I finish these books a little voice does seem to pop into my head and say "so what" and I feel I'm left with a couple of good conversation starters at parties but that is about it.

So I guess if you are looking for the answers to life the universe and everything than look elsewhere but if you want so interesting ideas to chew on then give it a go

You can get Outliers here

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