On Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm GladwellI had no idea who Malcolm Gladwell was until I took his MasterClass last year (2019). I have since read every book he has written. I’ve read a handful of articles. Granted, he as been working as a staff writer for the New York Times since 1996, so there are tons of pieces he has written and I doubt I’ll ever read them all. Several have been included in some of his books. I found Mr. Gladwell fascinating. Both as a person and as a writer.

I have not yet tried a podcast, but Gladwell has one titled Revisionist History that I have been wanting to look into. Perhaps it will be my introduction to the world of podcasts. What I enjoy most about his books is the fact that he takes a plethora of historical events, most seemingly unrelated, and blends them together around an encompassing theme. He remains objective throughout his writing and expertly pulls in facts, interviews, and testimonies to deliver a tangible truth for an altered perspective.

I think one key thing his work has done for me is revive my interest in nonfiction. I’d always been interested in certain areas of nonfiction like science, biography, memoir, or history, but Gladwell can blend together historical and current events to show a glimpse of a human truth. His most recent and what I consider most impactful book, Talking to Strangers, is insightful because it delves into how we react to each other as human beings and dares to review what information, however minute, we use to prepare ourselves when interacting with someone for the first time. It shows what split-second information we deem important which reveals a lot about who we are as part of a community.

I mainly read fiction but I have developed the habit of simultaneously reading a work of nonfiction, so I am always reading one work of fiction and one work of nonfiction at any given time. I usually read the fiction books much faster, but I like to continually be working through a book of essays or history or some form of nonfiction so I am learning something new about the world instead of always escaping into other worlds. Gladwell’s works really caught my interest and showed me areas in history I had never heard of before, or discussed current events I had missed or never knew what had actually happened.

I think being an informed citizen is important and getting information extracted from in-depth research is key to this. It is easy to simply read a headline without checking a source and leap onto a soapbox. It is another thing entirely to ensure the information is legitimate and based on fact instead of opinion. It is way too easy to spread ideas because of the internet. You can take this post for example. I’m spreading my opinion of Malcolm Gladwell simply on the basis that I like him and his work. I’m stating my opinion and you are reading this (thank you) because you are interested in either my opinion or Gladwell himself (or both). The “media” has been a hot topic the past several years and the distribution of information has been somewhat discredited, which is frightening because information has power. It can shape the way we think, act, or react. I don’t want to tangent into a rant about what is right or wrong or who should be believed here. All I want to say is that we should all be informed, check the sources, make sure we are not being told a partial narrative (or fabricated one), and try to do what we can to make things better.

I believe Malcolm Gladwell relies on facts and testimonies to bring his desired points across within his work. He doesn’t include his opinion or bias without explicitly stating that he is doing so. This is admirable. Which is why I decided to include Malcolm Gladwell in my On Authors series. He hasn’t written a fictional world I believe to be important. He writes about the real world in an important way. I hope you read his work if you have not already. He has covered a wide range of topics and a few are likely to catch your interest. I look forward to reading more his work myself.

5 Books About Writing

I am a writer and therefore will every so often pick up a book about the craft. Below is a list of books about writing that I have read over the past several years that I found informative, inspiring, and insightful. I could give entire lectures about writing and all the different things I’ve learned through a formal education and my own individual studies, but I’ll save that for the classroom. For now, I hope you consider these books if you are a writer, if you like interesting things, or if you simply like any of these authors in particular as most of the books listed include biographical content. This is not surprising because writing is a very personal thing and everyone has their own approach and methods, which is why I picked up bits and pieces from most of these books to build upon my own habits.

About WritingThe newest book on the list is About Writing: A Field Guide For Aspiring Authors by Gareth L. Powell. This little pocket book is filled with insights about everything from beginning the writing process to how to build a following and market your published book. It has a bunch of useful tips about social media, outlining a novel, tips for attending conferences or conventions, and overall how to be a present-day author. Gareth is a powerhouse of positive energy and I highly suggest you follow him on Twitter for daily inspiration. I also recommend keeping this book on hand to pick up from time to time and review whatever part of the writing journey you are currently on. One thing I’ve taken into my own practice is Gareth’s suggestion about how to outline a novel. I may end up tweaking it a bit to better suit my needs, but it is proving immensely useful so far.

On WritingThe second book is the first book on the craft of writing I ever read and the first book I had read by this author. The book in question is one of the most popular: On Writing by Stephen King. I picked this one up shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree and felt the need to keep educating myself on the craft. Admittedly, it has been a minute since I’ve read this book, but I do remember a lot from it. First, this book is split basically into two parts. One half is focused on King himself giving some background to his journey as a writer and the other half is about the craft. Both are incredibly interesting and worth your time. One thing I have always kept with me from this book is King’s habit of always having a book on hand no matter where you are. I’m not sure why this particular thought stuck with me, but he was right that you should always keep a book on hand because you can get reading in with all the “in between” time we have in life. Waiting in line for coffee? Read a few pages. At the doctor? Read some more. Nowadays you can do this with your pocket computer if you prefer an ebook and have the willpower to stay off social media. Physical books don’t have distracting apps. I think I may need to give it another read soon since I have grown a lot as a writer and a person since I last read it.

Elements of StyleNext is another “classic” on the craft and another small, pocket-sized book. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This is a craft book specific to the actual grammar and syntax and overall use of language and it is useful for writing in general and not just creative writing. It is a great book that can help you bolster your writing and form good habits, but like all the others, it isn’t a rule book. It may be the closest thing to one, but writing is again personal and you have your own style. This is simply one of the better resources to help you stay away from rookie mistakes and improve your prose. I think King mentions this book in his own and had some comments about Strunk and White’s thoughts about adverbs.

Zen and the Art of WritingThis next book I happened to discover while perusing the shelves of my local library. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This book was such a fun find. I was surprised to find so many great essays about writing that were simply inspirational. I plan to get a copy of my own to have on hand because you can pick this book up and read any essay and get that spark to start a story or continue whatever you are working on. He has such a great way of reminding you what a joy and privilege it is to write. Any self-doubt will disappear as you read. He definitely puts the zest and gusto into his thoughts about the craft. Bradbury wrote one thousand words every day since he was a kid. I’m hoping I can build a habit like his, to write every day so I am always progressing toward my goal of finishing a novel or short story. I’m still working on this though. I don’t need a thousand words. For now, any amount will do. I just need to build the good habit.

ReflectionsReflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones is another collection of essays. This collection contains a large amount of biographical content about Diana and several essays repeat the same small tidbits about her life as they were written over the course of her career. She led a very interesting life and had some strange things happen to her. You’d almost think she were truly a witch. A good-natured one though. Did you know she had C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as professors? It does contain a lot of practical advice about writing, the market, agents, editors, and publishers. However, a lot of what she is describing is from a few decades ago and much has changed since then. I’ve no doubt some of the changes were due to her influence. Many things haven’t changed much at all unfortunately. The literary landscape may have changed since the writing of the essays, but she has plenty of relevant information in this book, especially about writing for younger audiences.

I have many more books on the craft I still want to read and many more I’m sure I will discover in the future. The next on my list I already have lined up and plan to start soon. Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I also want to read Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood. If you have a book about the craft of writing that you like, let me know with a comment. I’d love to find more. Perhaps I’ll write another list about another set of books on writing. For now, I’m going to get back to work by sticking with Rule #1 from Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules for writing which is simply: Write.

8 Rules of Writing_Neil Gaiman

On Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le GuinUrsula K. Le Guin was an influential writer and advocate for the progression of science fiction and fantasy into the realms of mainstream literature. She was also a strong advocate for female writers and did what she could to promote equity in publishing. Needless to say, she was a strong-minded and socially aware individual and she has been praised and criticized for these very reasons. To me, she is an inspiration and encourages me to improve myself.

I hate to say I have only recently discovered Le Guin, but what I have read so far has already impacted my own views of writing and the field of writing. I can’t recall when I first discovered who she was (I believe I discovered her from Neil Gaiman), but I do remember when I read her work for the first time. It was The Left Hand of Darkness and I finished it roughly two years ago. She died three weeks later on January 22nd, 2018. I have since read a collection of non-fiction The Language of the Night and watched a documentary titled The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.* The documentary was well-one and worth the watch.

Within The Language of the Night, Le Guin discusses much of what the world of science fiction looked like from a writer’s perspective during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was at this time when the publication of science fiction and fantasy was changing. These two genres, which are often paired together, were looked down upon as a secondary form of writing or considered childish stories. There were a lot of terrible stories written during the first half the 20th century (and the second half as well), but something happened during the second half which changed societies views about these topics. I believe J.R.R. Tolkien was a big influence (mainly on the view of fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling) primarily with his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” These areas of entertainment still face some resistance today but it is hard to deny that stories written within the classification of either genre are influential and have merit. This is not just because they are extremely popular across the globe, but because they are lasting.

Yes, we are lucky because most of the not-so-great science fiction and fantasy stories written in the 1900’s have been culled by time thus leaving us with the better stories still standing, but there are some hidden gems still out there and I hope they do not fall into obscurity or disappear altogether. I don’t believe Le Guin’s works are at any risk of disappearing. I still need to read many of her books, but the one’s I hear most about are her Earthsea series and the Hainish Cycle (this later series consists of standalone novels and includes The Left Hand of Darkness). My lovely wife bought me the illustrated Earthsea series for our one-year anniversary. I hope to read it this year.

Le Guin is known as one of many essential science fiction authors. She was advocating for the field around the time that these types of books were first being taught in schools. Many people today, myself included, grew up reading fantasy and science fiction in school alongside the other “classic” books. I read The Hobbit in middle school and again in high school (though I had already read it before it was “required”). I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and loved it. Science fiction and fantasy have become part of the norm. They remain popular and are growing fields. At the time Le Guin was becoming a popular writer of these genres, it was a somewhat niche field. She wanted it to grow and grow it did. In the 1970’s, Le Guin stated that only 1 in 30 writers of science fiction were female. She was a rarity. She worked to encourage women writers and urged them to resist the use of male pseudonyms which was still common at that time. I’m glad that the times have changed and the world of writing is more inclusive than the past, but we still have a ways to go. I, like Le Guin, will advocate however I can to promote diversity and inclusion in all areas of life.

Though many readers believe her work can be a little too political, primarily her non-fiction, I find it mostly reassuring and encouraging. Her writing was her form of learning her social environment and saying what she wanted to say. She wrote stories of worlds where certain aspects of our society were dismissed or exaggerated in order to explore what those fictional societies would look like. This is what I believe makes them so interesting to read. Many of the aspects she writes about are still very much relevant today, nearly fifty years later, and will likely remain for a long time. I think her writing will endure because most of her stories are simply other worlds we can enjoy. Oftentimes they are, but they still hold a gem which we can either discover or ignore depending on what we want from the book. That gem is much like a flag to be raised toward a cause we may wish to stand behind.

Le Guin has influenced many writers who are popular today. I hope she continues to influence writers and others, much like she has influenced me. I may not love all of her works, but I will respect her for who she was and what she believed. Her words survive her and will continue to influence the world to persevere and improve itself. That is the best that any writer can hope for.

 


*Link was available at the time of writing. If the link is unavailable, I recommend searching the web or checking your local library for a copy of this film.

Talking to Strangers

Talking to StrangersTalking to Strangers (subtitled What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know) was published late last year. Of all the books by Malcolm Gladwell, of which I believe I’ve read all but one as of today, this is decidedly my favorite. I have recently become fervently interested in communication and this book encompasses that very concept in relation to how humans interact with each other.

I must admit that this book does cover some, what I consider, heavier subjects. Humanity has not treated itself very well throughout history. He does bounce around between subjects, but he masterfully ties them all together as is his modus operandi.

The book is centered around the arrest of Sandra Bland. Gladwell incorporates fascinating  information about policing, intelligence agencies, alcohol, and other topics such as rape. He covers psychologies and the tendency to default-to-truth. I believe he ties these all together tighter than the subjects of his other books, which are equally interesting. The bottom line tends to be that we as a species, even incorporating differences between societies and even after thousands of years of development, are not even close to being able to communicate without a plethora of barriers. These are often preconceptions or implicit biases that may guide us to believe one thing and miss the mark (often completely).

The past few years have shown me that communication is essential. Within the workplace, it can expedite solutions to complex problems when done effectively, and when done poorly can create complex problems from a simple task. Communication is essential to understanding each other. Unfortunately, we see primarily divisive information online today. Huge gaps in political ideology and social subjects. I don’t believe we have more problems than we have had in the past. I just believe we are more aware of every little thing that is happening because we can access it and share it at any second of any day with the tiny computers in our pockets.

Even though we do have access to the sum of humanities knowledge, we often only see a partial narrative. Anyone who is unable to see beyond that partial narrative, or chooses not to, is simply (by definition) ignorant. I learned more about recent headline news from this book than I did at the time the events were happening. This is partially because I did not go looking for additional information on the cases in question. However, I was aware of them prior to reading this book. Primarily the cases of Brock Turner and Sandra Bland. I have a better understanding of these events and am glad of this despite the unsettling nature of how they happened.

Gladwell does well, as he almost always does, in distancing himself from the narrative and preventing any personal bias to enter his prose. He admits one such bias in this book but without that admission we would not have known the passion he has for that particular event.

He also did something quite interesting with this book. I listened to the audiobook version which he reads himself. He structured this audiobook to be similar in a few aspects to a podcast. He uses recordings of interviews when possible to let us hear the person’s voice instead of Gladwell quoting them. He also has re-enactments done of court hearings and interrogations. This, within a book about communication, improved the experience. I recommend the audiobook version if you have access to one. I borrowed it from my library though I did have a long wait before it was my turn.

I hope you add this book to your list or pick it up soon to read or listen to. It encourages us to think about the way we interact with strangers and even friends. It dares us to do better while also letting us know that it is not our fault, or anyone’s, if we fail to understand each other whether upon first meeting or decades later. I hope to do better and communicate more effectively. Perhaps doing so will eliminate some of the bad we see in the world. Perhaps it will make only my own life a bit easier and hopefully brighter.

As for you, reader, I want to thank you for reading my words and taking in my intent to communicate my belief that this book is informative and enthralling. At least, it was for me, and I hope it will be for you.

Happy Reading.

Educated

EducatedEducated is a memoir by Tara Westover that was first published in early 2018. I believe this is an important book. More important than nearly all the books I have read throughout my life, which I believe cements the emphasis I am placing on it. It is true I read mainly fiction, and I believe fiction can be extremely important. It can show us things that cannot happen in order to show us with a certain level of clarity what it is to be human. It can warn us by showing an exaggerated future we should aim to avoid. Fiction can do a lot of important things that nonfiction cannot, and it can do things similarly but with a bit more fun. However, the world is a much more interesting place than we give it credit. Books like Educated remind us of this. It also reminds us that some true stories can be even more unbelievable than fiction.

Tara Westover gives us a brief history of her life growing up in Idaho with a father who believed, among many unconventional things, that the school system was a means to indoctrinate young minds and turn them away from God. There are many things Tara’s father believes in and many things he doesn’t. Modern medicine is one he does not believe in. Unfortunately, safety isn’t one either. The best thing her father did for her (in my opinion) was to let Tara make her own decision about going to college. She does not attend any formal educational institution prior to college, and her journey from junkyard rat to Cambridge scholar is inspirational, infuriating, and unimaginably filled with hope.

So what makes this book so important? Well, for one, I think it emphasizes many things about our lives and those we choose to keep by our side. It shows the importance of education as well as the hardships we face. Especially the hardships of breaking away from family to have a happier, healthier life. One aspect I applaud Tara for is her ability to tell her story without a bias we would expect of her. She has every right to be angry with her father and others, but that anger is tempered by love for them. We, as a lucky audience, get a wholesome picture because of this.

It is hard to believe people like Tara’s father exist in today’s society. Then again, I believe we all know of someone who may have similarly odd insinuations. What I found infuriating at times were her father’s outright neglect and refusal to do what was best for his family. He actively puts them in danger and anything outside of his control, or any accident caused by his neglect, was then left up to God to heal or make right. I am not a religious person, which is why this particular placing of responsibility in a higher power, when it could be corrected with his own actions, irked me so much. I do not tolerate ignorance well. I cannot tolerate willful ignorance at all.

Several people I have talked to about this book mention it is hard to read. Mainly because of certain events that take place. “Hard” wouldn’t be the word I would choose. Perhaps “difficult” is a better way of putting it. Difficult in a way that you as the reader, having an outside perspective, will easily see the error of decisions being made as Tara recounts the events. You will have to witness the train wreck that occurs knowing full well the cause and how it could have been prevented. But also like a train wreck, you will not be able to look away. This story compels you to witness it.

I believe this book is important because it sheds light on the way some people think and live while believing modern medicine is the work of the devil and whatever else you think you can imagine. The second reason I believe this book is important is because it shows how education allows us to grow. It shows how important education is and how we can sometimes take simple things for granted. I’m not referring to just a formal education but any type of education. You don’t have to go to school to learn. You learn everywhere and can learn many things outside of school. Perhaps even more than what you receive attending classes. Tara’s decision and devotion to her studies is inspiring, yes, but that devotion stemmed from a yearning to better understand the world she lived in. She wanted to know about history and the lives of those who came before her. The more she learned the more she became appalled at her ignorance. She sought to learn everything that she had missed by not attending school earlier. Education allows us to shed prejudices and and better understand each other. Tara’s journey leads her to better understand herself. Both fortunately and unfortunately, it also leads her to better understand her family, and that is where her true battle lies.

There are many times in Tara’s story where you will not be certain of which choices she will make. Will she do what she believes to be right? Or do what she thinks is right by her family? If this were a fictional story, we would be able to predict how the story would end because fiction almost always leaves our character in a better place than where they began. There are often happy endings. Would I consider Tara’s “ending” a happy one? I don’t think so. Bittersweet maybe.

I encourage you to journey alongside Tara as she grows up and begins her journey into the realm of academia. I would love to hear your thoughts about her experiences. Most of all, I hope you learn something from her story.

Happy Reading.