Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Tipping Point

     Malcolm Gladwell landed on my (obviously incredibly astute) radar a little over a year ago, when I noticed a trend in minimalist book covers. I decided to get in on the action and read Outliers—a book that induced my distrust of Korean airliners with its impressively memorable anecdotes. This non-fiction “Story of Success” is only one of Gladwell’s numerous bestsellers. His five books mostly revolve around principles of social psychology, offering a fusion of research and entertaining stories. My biggest take-away however, was the author’s phenomenal hair. 

I couldn’t resist trying another one of his books—The Tipping Point*. With a look like that, I thought, “alright, how about just the tip”. Instead, I ended up reading the whole thing.

     Tipping point: “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire” (Gladwell, back cover). Tipping points are striking instances in which everything changes. For instance, in Baltimore (go Ravens!), the number of infants born with syphilis increased by 500 percent from 1995 to 1996 (Gladwell, 15). That’s not casual. Something happened to stimulate that unprecedented boost. Gladwell argues that sociological trends can follow epidemic-like patterns similar to that of viruses. He introduces three agents that are instrumental in facilitating a social “outbreak”:
  • People! But only certain kinds. The “Law of the Few” holds that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts” (Gladwell, 33).  This notion is akin to the economic “80/20 principle” whereby “80 percent of the ‘work’ will be done by 20 percent of the participants. [For example], in most societies, 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of crimes” (Gladwell, 19). This elite 20 percent is critical in the spread of information to the rest of us peasants. It is made up of three kinds of characters:
a) Connectors. Incredibly extroverted people with an extensive network. Someone with a gregarious personality capable of confidently linking people from different social spheres.

b) Mavens. I know this sounds like a tribe from Game of Thrones, but it’s not. Mavens are information experts; they accumulate knowledge and share that knowledge with others. Non-mavens turn to them for answers because they are always in the know.

c)  Salesmen. Or women! These people possess the power of persuasion. They are unconsciously charismatic and expressive to the point that they can convince us one way or another via nonverbal cues.

These personality types are not mutually exclusive and they can have an enormous effect when combined. They reduce the complexities of the world by making information-processing more manageable. As a result, society at large tends to follow their advice. What they like, everyone ends up liking. Can I get a connector-maven-salesperson up in here to start advocating this blog so that it blows up and I become rich and famous?
  • Stickiness. Formerly, Gladwell touched on the characteristics attributable to those responsible for the spread of an idea. Now, he focuses on the features of the idea itself: it must be memorable. It has to stick to become popular enough to “tip”. In this chapter, he interestingly discusses the fruitlessness of certain advertising techniques and dives into the background behind successful educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. (Remember when Steve left the show and all these rumors about a heroin overdose and him being this uncontrollable Satanist surfaced and all your childhood hopes and dreams vanished? No? Just me? That’s fine. Turns out he’s totally straight, he was just tired of the show after six years. But then they replaced him with Joe and Joe was mad lame).  
  • Context. This chapter refers to the environment in which ideas proliferate. Gladwell employs the “broken windows theory”, a criminological belief that “crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread” (Gladwell 141). Nobody likes a broken window, guys. That’s how you get cold. Basically, according to this view, the little things matter. New York City in the 1980s was completely crime-ridden, averaging “well over 2,000 murders and 600,000 serious felonies a year” (Gladwell, 135). This is not the New York City that I know; hell, I traipse around the streets at 4 AM like I own the place. And that’s because in the 90’s, the situation tipped. Crime rates suddenly shot down at an extraordinary pace. Gladwell credits this transformation to increased efforts in addressing seemingly insignificant crimes like fare-beating and vandalism. The new police chief in charge cracked down on graffiti, actively stripping subway cars of markings even right after they occurred. He also made it less cumbersome to arrest those who tried to jump the turnstiles and created an environment in which it was nearly impossible for someone to get away with the act. Except that’s not entirely true, because I’ve done it once. According to Gladwell, these slight changes in context actually had a wide-scale effect on unlawful activity. Would-be criminals were no longer surrounded by disorder, so they did not behave in a disorderly fashion. Gladwell encourages readers to reframe the way we look at the world; what may be most effective is not always the most intuitive. This conception of crime stems from an atypical line of thinking. It implies that criminals are not criminals because they have innate illicit tendencies; rather, their environment nudges them to engage in illegal behavior. It is a perspective that counters a defeatist, prevention-laden approach; instead of honing in on criminals themselves, we can fix more minute problems within the environment. Food for thought.
The book as a whole serves as a guide on how to focus your efforts more productively to create change. You can manipulate the connectors/mavens/salespeople, strive to mold a particularly “sticky” message, modify the context in which your message is received, or all of the above. “What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus” (Gladwell, 258). Gladwell leaves us with this grandiose suggestion, but does the data back it up? It is hard to say. Critics protest his fairly undeniable oversimplifications as well as his particular usage of one-sided stats and ad hoc anecdotes which bias his message. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for literature (duh), but I am also thankful for the critical method that readers can utilize to challenge authors and generate an ongoing conversation.

Personally, I do not necessarily place a ton of weight in his conclusions; yet, he raises intriguing solutions to problems that I think are worth investigating. For instance, he proposes a laudably pragmatic approach to combating cigarette addiction—a pitch that, as a head and neck cancer researcher, I find especially worthy of further assessment. He also incidentally provides readers with the history behind cool concepts that I have taken for granted up until now, like the meaning behind “six degrees of separation”. Furthermore, Gladwell is a careful writer who emphasizes clarity. The book has a straightforward structure that clearly explains each factor involved in a tipping point and then ties them all together to really drive his message home. Taking both the negative and positive factors into account, I give The Tipping Point 3 out of 5 camel humps. There is always value in reading something that encourages you to look at the world in a different way, but it is heedful to take his ideas with a grain of salt.

*Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not That Kind of Girl

 If you watch HBO’s Girls, you see Lena Dunham naked approximately 5,000 times. If you read Not That Kind of Girl*, you see Lena Dunham emotionally naked roughly the same amount. I initially opened the book and thought wow…an open book! I was not astounded by my ability to literally open up the pages (although I had just painted my nails, so that's kind of impressive); I was amazed with the candidness it contained. Lena concedes that she does not possess a wealth of wisdom, yet maintains that she might still have something to offer. She tells readers, “If I can take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine will have been worthwhile” (Dunham, xvii). She comedically shares her insecurities so that we might feel less insecure ourselves. That way she can beat anyone to the punch when it comes to making fun of herself!

Even if you do not enjoy her quirky mannerisms or value her sense of humor, you can appreciate this woman’s incredible accomplishments. After all, she started writing/directing/acting in an award-winning television show at age 25! I can’t decide if that makes me feel inspired or if it makes me feel like complete shit. Oftentimes when I find myself watching sports (like one of those cool girls, ya know) I’ll experience an unwelcome epiphany. In between my douchey, unsubtle attempts at knowledge-dropping (“they’ve made a lot of points in the paint tonight”, “that was an incredible pick-six”, “didn’t ____ used to play for ___”, etc.) I’ll think about the players’ absurd degree of talent at such a young age and become disillusioned. But athletic skill is one thing; creative skill is entirely another. A famous football player might have a streak of bad games, but Lena is completely and totally exposing her artistic prowess, allowing the world to judge her creativity—a talent that is much more abstract and arguably more daunting to display. Furthermore, her impetus to write has an existential undertone that I obviously eat right up. She explains to a fellow writer, ‘“In our work, we create a better or clearer universe…or at least one that makes more sense. A place we’d want to live, or can at least understand’” (Dunham, 135). You sense that producing this book is therapeutic for her and you feel blessed for having been ushered into that process beside her. #Blessed.

Her quest for self-actualization is certainly not drama-free. She is theatrical throughout even the most pedantic moments of daily life, which provides her plenty of material to publicly disclose. The memoir book is divided into five chapters, each containing a conglomeration of lists and autobiographical essays. The first section, “Love & Sex” discusses her desperate attempts at losing her virginity, her awkward flirtatious intimations, and her unfortunate penchant for jerks. “Body” details her difficulties dieting (ex: “How to Remain 10 Lbs. Overweight Eating Only Healthy Food”) and her reasoning behind willingly performing her own sex scenes on Girls—“I do it because my boss tells me to. And my boss is me” (Dunham, 105). “Friendship” follows her relationship with her sister and the reasons why she loves New York-- “I like your city… I just like mine better” (Dunham, 157). “Work” relays the sexism she experiences in Hollywood and reminds readers that you can have legitimate aspirations without being ambitious all the freaking time (Can I get an Amen?). Lastly, “Big Picture” meditates on death and therapy and features one of my favorite chapters concerning her hypochondriatic tendencies. There have been complaints from some critics that the book’s structure hops around in an overly-haphazard way. I disagree; each chapter is entertaining in and of itself and I do not think the book was intended to be read as a chronological narrative.

To be honest, I can’t always relate to Lena. We have different (though not clashing) views on love, sex, body image, etc. But Lena makes you relate to her. She fondly forces you to see life through her exuberant eyes and it is difficult to not be transformed by her frankness. Her book—and her show for that matter—make me feel empowered. They suggest that you and I can fulfill our dreams by just being ourselves and staying true to said self. Granted, unlike her, I don’t come from a family of successful artists with hella connections. My dad owns a couple of Hallmarks so I think I could potentially pull a Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer and get into the greeting card biz. I also think it is very cool that she has the clout to openly reveal embarrassing stories about people in her life. For God’s sake, she chronicles her past sexual encounters in graphic detail and she currently has a serious boyfriend—the lead singer of the band fun, in fact. He is probably like “what the hell is this?” while everyone else is like “oh, that’s just classic Lena, for ya!” She can get away with so much because she’s funny and bright. I hope that someday I can mortify my loved ones via a similarly public platform. That being said, beware of transgressing me in any way. I will morph into the Taylor Swift of writing and talk all kinds of shit about you.  

In summary, Lena Dunham is on point with her intelligent, snarky swagger and her memoir rightfully earns 4 out of 5 camel humps. As with most comedic books, I do not give out a full 5 humps because it is not a “must-read”--though it is very engaging nonetheless. It is not always lol-funny but it is such a joy to read in that it relieves the burden of complicated life issues without denying their significance. At one point, I was reading it on the bus from DC to NY and I genuinely wanted the ride to be longer so that I could read more. That is a true testament to her ability to entertain because my desire was ridiculous. Buses are awful and I was sitting next to a smelly male who sifted uncomfortably in his seat all too frequently and monopolized the shared arm rest. Lena is a lively soul with a good-natured humor that is comically self-deprecating without completely undermining her pride. It would be a mistake to not read this book and miss out on her wit. And because I'm apparently very into memes these days, I will leave you with this:

*Dunham, Lena. Not That Kind of Girl. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Marriage Plot

Dear Mr. Eugenides,

I’m writing to confirm that The Marriage Plot* is a joke. It is a joke, right? One can only assume that you exhausted all of your creative juices on Middlesex and simply had nothing left to give. I am honestly so taken aback by how poorly executed this novel is that I’m considering tweaking my once steadfast anti-censorship views. The contrast between this trite storyline and the creativity of your previous novel (Middlesex review) is shocking, to say the least. Mid-read, I felt like I was watching the film From Dusk Till Dawn. Tarantino is a main character, so you expect great things…up until everyone transforms into low-budget vampires and you realize that you can never un-see the unnecessarily ridiculous shit you just saw. Likewise, I can never recover the time I spent reading this 400 page monstrosity. Be forewarned, however, that I will be suing you for the $4.00 I used to buy the book on Amazon.

You might be wondering why I feel so passionately disappointed by this novel. Simply put: the story is not worth telling. There are three main characters, trapped in a sickening love triangle. Madeline, the woman of mutual desire, is incredibly selfish and so boring that I actually feel burdened when her name is mentioned. To clarify, she is not boring because she is a spoiled, well-educated rich girl. She is boring because she is simple-minded…and she happens to also be a spoiled, well-educated rich girl. For instance, she has a self-imposed rule to never date guys who go to shrinks because she can’t really wrap her mind around the idea of having emotional issues that run deeper than “why hasn’t he called me back yet?” Mr. Eugenides, I’m not sure how much you know about women, but I can assure you that we’re not all sitting in our beds at night, plucking at flower petals and sullenly murmuring, “he loves me… he loves me not”. Instead, I’m currently eating dry Cinnamon Toast Crunch out of the box, listening to Drake talk about how he came through on his Wu-Tang, and trying to figure out why my “I mustache you what time it is” clock won’t properly display the time. I may not be an entirely complex person 24/7 but I am also not pining over men every second of every day and it’s frankly embarrassing that you would reduce the main character to such constant triviality. I understand that these people exist but I sure as hell don’t want to read about them.

Leonard, Madeline’s boyfriend, is a slight step up. We do not find out about his manic-depression until pretty late in the game. This might have been a half-hearted attempt at implying the insidious nature of the disease; instead, it made me feel like I had been lied to and led astray by you for no real, useful purpose. Leonard is a product of neglect and abuse; the dysfunctionality which defines his childhood becomes such a normalcy for him that it warps his ability to maintain romantic relationships later on. He feels like he is undeserving when things are going well in his love-life; these lowered expectations, coupled with his mental illness, effectively sabotage anything good he has going for him. I rooted for him until he pulled a dramatic, immature stunt at the end. I thought we were dealing with young adults in their mid-twenties, not ten year olds. At this point, I would much prefer a love story about ten year olds—specifically one involving Stan Marsh and Wendy Testaburger.

Lastly, there is Mitchell, the distant admirer of Madeline and direct foil of Leonard. After graduation, he travels through Europe and Asia, loosely as a spiritual pursuit. I respect that he actively seeks non-superficial pleasures as he tries to determine if truth can be found through the heart and not just the mind. Mainly, though, I am confused by him. His thoughts directly contradict his actions; while this is a fairly common and realistic scenario, it is unsuccessfully implemented as a cogent train of thought in your writing. The contradiction strikes me as less of a practical portrayal and more of an incomprehensible series of events. Read: why the hell are you doing what you’re doing, Mitchell? Stop.

Why would you choose such uninteresting characters for the crux of your novel?! I rue all of the wasted potential. You begin the book with the following quote from Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about” (Eugenides, 1). This is a good start; you really had something here that you could run with. It challenges readers—is love merely a social construction? Is love just a mental state that can be manipulated as such? Can you overcome predictability and express a purely original thought? Is newness even a possibility in this day and age? Are we capable of loving people in ways that don’t feel like we’re acting from a script?

I anticipated that this love triangle would be different from the “marriage plots” of previous literature, and I sincerely hoped that it would strike me as unique and unformulaic. I imagined a slew of questions that the novel could address—what defines love? Is it the same for everyone? Can unconventional pathways to love survive and thrive? Your novel, to my dismay, gave very half-ass answers. The book is overwrought with gender tensions, but the only remotely compelling romantic setback centers on Leonard’s bipolar disorder. Leonard’s understanding of love is that it can transcend all differences. Accordingly, he wonders why he and Madeline cannot seem to connect despite his disease. On the other hand, Madeline feels that Leonard is unknowable and thus unlovable unless she immerses herself in his pain and truly understands what he is going through. This sobering conclusion makes her question whether their relationship is strong enough to withstand the trials and tribulations that make Leonard who he is. In this isolated situation, I might think that Madeline is a loving, considerate person; however, taking into account the entire novel, her reluctance reinforces her crippling dependency on men. She is only capable of defining herself in relation to her significant other at the time. I thought I was going to get something refreshing from this novel. Alternatively, I am shown how women’s slavery to domesticity and lack of financial independence in the Victorian era translates to the modern day in your mind: emotional dependency. This is how I feel about people like Madeline:

As a whole, I am thankful that I read this insofar as I can (hopefully) prevent others from making the same mistake. A fellow Goodreads reviewer properly renamed the novel The Marriage Plop. Your characters are flawed in ways that typically make for appealing literature. Unfortunately, they had very little actual substance and I grew weary of crossing my fingers that each subsequent chapter would offer me deeper insights. Usually, even if I am uninterested and uninvested in a book’s plot, I can still appreciate the writing style. Not in this case. I give this book 1 out of 5 camel humps because the fact of the matter is that I would not recommend this to anyone. The 2-hump ratings I have given on the blog thus far (Crime and Punishment review and Heart of Darkness review) acknowledge the respective author’s impressive prose and the cultural relevance of a *classic*. This book is bereft of all such benefits. Its only redeeming quality is its infrequent racy sex scenes. If I’m looking to blush on the subway, there are millions of other methods I would prefer.


A Regretful Reader

*Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Marriage Plot. New York: Picador, 2011. Print.