Guy Davenport, 1927-2005

Sitting just a few feet from me on a bookshelf is a copy of The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport, a remarkably insightful collection of literary essays. I was introduced to Davenport’s writing through his friend, Hugh Kenner, whom I knew briefly at Johns Hopkins. Recently, I had enjoyed his eccentric book reviews in Harpers, so I was saddened to just learn that he died a little over two months ago.

Guy Matt Schudel in the Washington Post:

Guy Davenport, 77, an erudite author, poet and critic whose subtle and demanding works won him a loyal literary following, died Jan. 4 of lung cancer at a hospital in Lexington, Ky., where he lived.

Mr. Davenport, who taught at the University of Kentucky for nearly three decades, was a man of wide learning who freely dropped references to ancient cave paintings, classical poetry and 18th-century French philosophy throughout his work. His essays and short stories were often written in a distinctive, original style.

More here.  And there is a longer article in The New Criterion:

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Guy Davenport, poet, novelist, book illustrator, essayist nonpareil, raconteur indefatigable, master of humane inquiry. Guy was entirely sui generis, an autodidact of the old school who managed to sample Duke, Merton College at Oxford, and Harvard University (Ph.D. on Ezra Pound) with no visible deformation. He taught for decades: at the University of Washington in St. Louis, at Haverford College, and at the University of Kentucky from 1963 until 1991 when a MacArthur “genius” award (for once they got it right) set him free, free at last. Yet if Guy was in, he most certainly was not of, the academy. A less academic personality is difficult to imagine. Indeed, although Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul, someone whose unextinguishable curiosity generally left him amused rather than indignant at the spectacle of human foibles, he made an exception for the arid, the pedantic, the politically correct, in short, for the academic—the one term, so far as we can recall, that was for him invariably a term of diminishment, a term of contempt.

More here.  And in case you are interested, Guy Davenport had written the obituary of Hugh Kenner when he died two years ago, also in The New Criterion:

HughHis command of any subject was such that he could lecture without notes or script. He usually had a folder of blank pages, or letters from friends, that he pretended to be reading from, to assure audiences that he’d written out what he was saying. When he gave the Alexander Lectures at Toronto and was asked for the manuscript, so that they could be printed, he had to say, “Well, there isn’t one.”

Nor did he own a comb. His hair over the years became Einsteinisch. Being very hard of hearing, he repeated carefully what interlocutors said to him, to make certain he’d heard correctly. He therefore did most of the talking in a conversation. He once talked for three days at my house, when he was planning The Stoic Comedians. Part of his discourse was a recitation of Beckett’s unpublished novel Mercier et Camier that he’d memorized.

More here.

Predicting Addiction

Lisa N. LeGrand, et al, in American Scientist:

In 1994, the 45-year-old daughter of Senator and former presidential nominee George McGovern froze to death outside a bar in Madison, Wisconsin. Terry McGovern’s death followed a night of heavy drinking and a lifetime of battling alcohol addiction. The Senator’s middle child had been talented and charismatic, but also rebellious. She started drinking at 13, became pregnant at 15 and experimented with marijuana and LSD in high school. She was sober during much of her 30s but eventually relapsed. By the time she died, Terry had been through many treatment programs and more than 60 detoxifications.

Her story is not unique. Even with strong family support, failure to overcome an addiction is common. Success rates vary by treatment type, severity of the condition and the criteria for success…

Studies of twins are particularly useful for analyzing the origins of a behavior like addiction. Our twin pairs have grown up in the same family environment but have different degrees of genetic similarity. Monozygotic or identical twins have identical genes, but dizygotic or fraternal twins share on average only half of their segregating genes. If the two types of twins are equally similar for a trait, we know that genes are unimportant for that trait. But when monozygotic twins are more similar than dizygotic twins, we conclude that genes have an effect.

More here.

Young composer poised for a major career: Nico Muhly

Alex Ross, music critic, writes about young composers in The New Yorker:

Nicostripes2Of the composers I heard, the one who seems best poised for a major career is Nico Muhly, a twenty-two-year-old, spiky-haired, healthily irreverent student of Corigliano’s at Juilliard. He has formed his own private repertory, running from the purest, hootiest English choral music to minimalism in its raw, classic phase. These tastes reflect two sharply different musical experiences—singing in a boys’ choir and working in Philip Glass’s electronic studio. He also listens to a lot of off-kilter pop, like Björk, Múm, Ladytron, and Fischerspooner. “Nothing is better than Prince,” he advised me. On a recent afternoon, he enjoyed motets by William Byrd, Khia’s salacious hip-hop track “My Neck, My Back,” John Adams’s “China Gates,” and Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”—the last for a school paper.

More here.  And listen to some of Nico’s music at his website, here.

Monday, March 7, 2005

Hans Bethe, Father of Nuclear Astrophysics, Dies at 98

William J. Broad in the New York Times writes:

Hans_bethe Hans Bethe, who discovered the violent force behind sunlight, helped devise the atom bomb and eventually cried out against the military excesses of the cold war, died late Sunday. He was 98, among the last of the giants who inaugurated the nuclear age.

Except for the war years at Los Alamos, N.M., Dr. Bethe lived in Ithaca, N.Y., an unpretentious man of uncommon gifts. His students called him Hans and admired his muddy shoes as much as his explaining how certain kinds of stars shine. For number crunching, in lieu of calculators, he relied on a slide rule, its case battered. “For the things I do,” he remarked a few years ago, “it’s accurate enough.”

For nearly eight decades, Dr. Bethe (pronounced BAY-tah) pioneered some of the most esoteric realms of physics and astrophysics, politics and armaments, long advising the federal government and in time emerging as the science community’s liberal conscience. During the war, he led the theoreticians who devised the atom bomb and for decades afterwards fought against many new arms proposals. His wife, Rose, often discussed moral questions with him and, by all accounts, helped him decide what was right and wrong.

Dr. Bethe fled Europe for the United States in the 1930’s and quickly became a star of science. As a physicist, he made discoveries in the world of tiny particles described by quantum mechanics and the whorls of time and space envisioned by relativity theory. He did so into his mid-90’s, astonishing colleagues with his continuing vigor and insight. In a 1938 paper, Dr. Bethe explained how stars like the Sun fuse hydrogen into helium, releasing energy and ultimately light. That work helped establish his reputation as the father of nuclear astrophysics, and nearly 30 years later, in 1967, earned him the Nobel Prize in physics. In all, he published more than 300 scientific and technical papers, many of them originally classified secret.

Politically, Dr. Bethe was the liberal counterpoint (and proud of it) to Edward Teller, the physicist and conservative who played a dominant role in developing the hydrogen bomb. That weapon brought to earth a more furious kind of solar fusion, and Dr. Bethe opposed its development as immoral. For more than half a century, he championed many forms of arms control and nuclear disarmament, becoming a hero of the liberal intelligentsia. His wife called him a dove, Dr. Bethe once told an interviewer, adding his own qualifier: “A tough dove.” His gentle manner hid an iron will and mind that had few hesitations about identifying what he saw as error, hypocrisy or danger. “His sense of duty toward society is so deeply ingrained that he isn’t even aware of its being a sacrifice,” a close colleague, Dr. Victor F. Weisskopf, once remarked.

Read more here.

Local-Global Synthesis: Spider-Man India

This speaks volumes about globalization and adaptation to local culture, not quite McWorld, but something close perhaps.  Spider-Man India:

“Marvel Enterprises, Inc. & Gotham Entertainment Group –Indian publishing licensee of Marvel Comics and the leading publisher of international comic magazines in South Asia – announces the launch of Spider-Man India

Spider-Man India interweaves the local customs, culture and mystery of modern India, with an eye to making Spider-Man’s mythology more relevant to this particular audience. Readers of this series will not see the familiar Peter Parker of Queens under the classic Spider-Man mask, but rather a new hero – a young, Indian boy named Pavitr Prabhakar. As Spider-Man, Pavitr leaps around rickshaws and scooters in Indian streets, while swinging from monuments such as the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal.

Mumbai’s first web-swinging Super Hero will be joined by a reinterpretation of the classic Spider-Man villain, the Green Goblin — reinvented as a Rakshasa, an Indian mythological demon.”


Dear Reader,

Abbas_for_3qd_letterThis is a sort of milestone for us, as it happens to be the 1000th post at 3 Quarks Daily. Our first post, a poem by Constantine Cavafy, was on July 31, 2004, so it has been a little over seven months since we started up. This means we have been averaging about five posts per day. I am happy to report that for such a young site, we have quickly developed quite a loyal, and steadily growing, readership. Among our regular readers, we are pleased to count such eminent thinkers as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, John Allen Paulos, and, of course, you.

Once, when I was ranting about how people don’t know enough basic math, the victim of my tirade asked me, “Don’t you believe in the left brain/right brain theory?” to which I replied, “I believe in the big brain/small brain theory.” What I meant is that human beings have big enough brains that we can, and should, take an interest in all intellectual fields of endeavor. We started this blog because we felt that while there are great sites which cover particular areas, like literature, or science, no one does it all. And so we decided we would start a blog where we post everything we could find in whatever field, as long as it was intellectually serious, stimulating, and well-written. We have attempted to do this. We have also tried to keep our design as simple as possible, with a single column of posts and nothing else. We have no advertising or other distractions, and each of the editors volunteers his or her time and effort.

We realize that you may not find everything that we post on a given day interesting, but we hope that if you come everyday and skim the titles of the posts, you will find at least one or two things that you end up reading in full. We keep the number of daily posts between five and ten most of the time. If you think we should have fewer or more, let us know. Also, it would be good to know if the posts themselves are too long or too short. What do you think?

The number of sites that link to us has grown steadily and is now some hard-to-pin-down three-digit number, but our audience is not as large as we think we deserve. And we believe that this is because not enough people know that we exist. Dear Reader, if you like what we do, and visit us regularly, we have a favor to ask: help spread the word about us. Maybe you could email your friends, family, and other like-minded people recommending us. If you have a blog or website of your own, please link to us, and/or write about us there. Do what you can, will you?

We are very eager for feedback, so please leave comments or email us with suggestions, criticisms, etc. I would like to thank all the editors at 3 Quarks for their always wonderfully fascinating (at least to me) posts. And last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank you for coming here and for supporting us. Looking forward to hearing from you, I remain,

Respectfully yours,


P.S. If you haven’t done so already, for more information about the site and about each of the editors, you should look at our “About Us” page here (or at the top of this page).

Amarji–A Heretic’s Blog, from Syria

On the theme of the Internet in the Arab world, Amarji-A Heretic’s Blog is, well, in his own words:

“the blog haven of Syrian author Ammar Abdulhamid, the place where he gets to express his thoughts and vent his frustration with regard to the ever so pretentious march of human folly. In this, he seeks to tread ever so carefully and lightly so as to avoid the usual pitfalls of megalomania and cynicism in which authors living in feverish times tend, customarily, to fall. Will he succeed? But then, and with an introduction like this, perhaps his fate is already sealed.”

And his take on recent events:

“Syrian trios will be ‘completely’ withdrawn to the Bekaa Valley, in accordance with the Taif, and will then be withdraw to the Syrian-Lebanese borders in accordance with 1559.

Questions: When will any of this take place? This will supposedly be decided sometimes this week. On what side of the borders will the Syrian troops be stationed? Unclear. Will this satisfy the Lebanese opposition or the Americans? Unlikely, as the President himself anticipated in his speech. What’s the point of all this then? Buying time. For what? For the internal showdown that is likely to take place in the near future. After all, the President himself promised that the upcoming regional conference of the Baath Party will herald new changes for the country.

Analysis: The scene has been set for an internal showdown. the President seems poised to implement Scenario One of the three scenarios previously highlighted (purge, assassination, coup), that is the purge meant to consolidate his grip on power.”

Via Norman Geras.

Arab Politics and the Internet

Joseph Braude writes in The New Republic:

The Internet is now a destabilizing force to Arab governments, some of which are trying and failing to bottle it back up. Despite its relatively modest penetration in the region, the web is threatening the status quo–in societies as conservative as Saudi Arabia and police states as tightly run as Syria and Tunisia–in ways that previous technologies never could. That’s in part because it is making obsolete the strategies that Arab governments had used for centuries–with almost perfect success–to quash dissent and cling to power. It may be trite to speak of the Internet’s transformative power; but in the case of the Arab world in 2005, it appears increasingly to be real.

More here.

The Committee to Protect Bloggers

For those who are interested in blogging as free expression, there’s this, The Committee to Protect Bloggers, which publicizes attacks on bloggers, mostly by public authorities.  The case of the arrested Iranian bloggers have gotten much attention, but the CPB also has links to (alleged, innocent until proven. . .) instances in Baharain, Tunsia, France, Sweden and Finland.

Via Crooked Timber.

Earliest walking human ancestor found?

The Associated Press reports:

Scientists estimate fossil remains Earliest_human_ancestor
up to 4 million years old: A team of U.S. and Ethiopian scientists has discovered the fossilized remains of what they believe is humankind’s first walking ancestor, a hominid that lived in the wooded grasslands of the Horn of Africa nearly 4 million years ago.The bones were discovered in February at a new site called Mille, in the northeastern Afar region of Ethiopia, said Bruce Latimer, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio. They are estimated to be 3.8 million to 4 million years old.

The fossils include a complete tibia from the lower part of the leg, parts of a thighbone, ribs, vertebrae, a collarbone, pelvis and a complete shoulder blade, or scapula. There also is an ankle bone which, with the tibia, proves the creature walked upright, said Latimer, co-leader of the team that discovered the fossils.

Significant find
The bones are the latest in a growing collection of early human fragments that help explain the evolutionary history of man. “Right now we can say this is the world’s oldest bipedal (an animal walking on two feet) and what makes this significant is because what makes us human is walking upright,” Latimer said. “This new discovery will give us a picture of how walking upright occurred.”

The findings have not been reviewed by outside scientists or published in a scientific journal. Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist and head of the Graduate School at University College in London said, however, that the new finds could be significant. “It sounds like a significant find, … particularly if they have a partial skeleton because it allows you to speculate on biomechanics,” Aiello, who was not part of the discovery team, told The Associated Press by telephone from Britain. Paleontologists previously discovered in Ethiopia the remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, a transitional creature with significant ape characteristics dating as far back as 4.5 million years. There is some dispute over whether it walked upright on two legs, Latimer and Aiello said.

Read more here.

Sonny Bono vs. Marcel Proust

Aaron Matz in Slate:

ProustIn 1995, Penguin UK announced a new translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, with a different translator in charge of each of the seven volumes. This marked the first entirely fresh English-language version of the Search in decades; all previous renderings had been merely revisions of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation, which had appeared in the course of the 1920s. So many hands made for relatively quick work. In the United Kingdom, all volumes of the new project were published together in 2002. But readers in the United States have been left stranded midway through the novel, forced to endure two of the most Proustian of experiences: jealousy and loss.

Only the first four volumes of the new translation—from Swann’s Way through Sodom and Gomorrah—are available here. For this we have Sonny Bono to blame.

More here.

What is more important to science, freedom or money?

Interview of Mary Jo Nye in American Scientist:

NyeMary Jo Nye is Horning Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Her most recent book is Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 2004), a biography of the British physicist and Nobel laureate Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett…

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

One of the most successful books that I have used recently in teaching is Loren R. Graham’s What Have We Learned about Science and Technology from the Russian Experience? (Stanford University Press, 1998). The book is a series of essays (lectures) that were given at Stanford University, and it poses some startling questions about the relationship between the modern sciences and modern states, one of which Graham phrases as: What is more important to science, freedom or money?

More here.

Clifford Geertz on Jared Diamond and Richard A. Posner

Geertz reviews Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, and Catastrophe: Risk and Response by Richard A. Posner, in the New York Review of Books:

They have, as one would expect, rather different approaches to the question of social fatality. For Diamond, it is a gradual, cumulative affair, accelerating only toward the end when some hard-to-fix tipping point is mindlessly passed. There is a progressive misuse of the natural resources upon which the society is based to the point where collective life collapses into a self-consuming Hobbesean state of nature. For Posner, “catastrophe” is a distant, extrapolated culmination of present trends, an annihilating accident, implicit and unnoticed, waiting to happen—”a momentous tragic usually sudden event [producing] utter overthrow or ruin.”

Whether societies waste away in ecological neglect or are destroyed by foreseeable disasters they have failed to prevent, for both writers vigilance and resolve are the price of survival. Awareness is all. However much they may differ in style and method (and they occupy the poles of the social sciences—dogged, fact-thick empiricism on the one side, model-and-calculate political arithmetic on the other), these are consciousness-raising books, tracts for the time. It is later than we think. Later even than we have thought to think.

More here.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

The Knife Man

Jonathan Kaplan reviews The Knife Man: the extraordinary life and times of John Hunter, father of modern surgery by Wendy Moore, in The New Statesman:

HunterDoctors tend to scorn hospital dramas on television, thinking that it is hard to suspend disbelief as violin prodigies with brain tumours, pregnant fashion models and epileptic airline pilots are rushed to surgery amid much flourishing of the defibrillator paddles. The opening chapters of The Knife Man, Wendy Moore’s biography of the pioneering surgeon John Hunter, seem to offer the same theatrical overload. As we move through an 18th-century London that festers with grave-robbers, gangrene, scrofula, open sewers, syphilis and stolen corpses, we meet the blunt-mannered, tawny-haired Hunter “laying out his scheme for a daring and novel operation”.

To abandon the book at this stage, however, would be to miss out on the extraordinary breadth of its research and its superb evocation of Hunter’s genius. The writing finds its pace when Hunter goes off to be a surgeon with the British army during the Seven Years War. Moore restrains her imagination and allows Hunter to speak in his own robust voice.

More here.

Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria

From the United Press International:

ZakariafareedNewsweek’s international editor Fareed Zakaria will host a weekly, half-hour international affairs series on U.S public television stations.

The program, “Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria,” is produced by Azimuth Media in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting and distributed by American Public Television. The program debuts in April.

More here. And Zakaria writes in the new issue of Newsweek:

If Bush is to be credited for the benefits of his policies, he must also take responsibility for their costs. Over the past three years, his administration has racked up enormous costs, many of which could easily have been lowered or avoided altogether. The pointless snubbing of allies, the brusque manner in which it went to war in Iraq, the undermanned occupation and the stubborn insistence (until last summer) on pursuing policies that were fueling both an insurgency and anti-Americanism in Iraq—all have taken their toll in thousands of American and Iraqi lives and almost $300 billion.

More here.

Dawkins reporting from the Galapagos, Part III

Richard Dawkins writes “The Lava Lizard’s Tale” in The Guardian:

Dawkins_1The black lava fields of Santiago are an unforgettable – almost indescribable – spectacle. Black as a female marine iguana (of course the simile really should go the other way) the rock is called rope lava, and you can soon see why. It is drawn out and plaited in twisted ropes and pleats, folded and gathered like a black silk dress, coiled and whorled in giant fingerprints. Fingerprints, yes, and that brings me to the point of the lava lizard’s tale. As the lizard scuttles over the black lava of Santiago it is treading the fingerprints of history, rolled out by the sequence of particular events that tran-spired, minute by minute, on one particular day late in Darwin’s century, marking the minutes of that day, the day of the Santiago volcano.

There cannot be many other ways to see, laid out before you, a complete history, second by second, of one particular day, more than a century ago. Fossils do the same thing but over a much longer time scale. The molecules of a fossil are not the original molecules of the animal that died. Even fossil tracks, like those Mary Leakey found at Laetoli, don’t really do it. It is true that Laetoli shows you the exact places where two individual Australopithecus afarensis (those diminutive hominids carrying chimpanzee brains around on human legs), perhaps a mated couple, placed their feet during a particular walk together. There is a sense in which these footprints are frozen history, but the rock that you see today is not as it was then. That couple walked in fresh volcanic ash which later, over thousands of years, solidified and compacted to make rock. The lava ropes and pleats of Santiago, those giants’ fingerprints, are still composed of the very same molecules that were frozen into precisely those positions, only a century ago. And the time scale over which the distinct ropes and pleats were laid down is a time scale of seconds.

More here. And see parts one and two of this series here and here.

Blink Again

Catherine Bennett writes a critical review of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell in The Guardian:

Anyone who has suffered under the Atkins regime may feel familiar with the faintly hucksterish, overly-helpful tone of Gladwell’s introduction. “You’ve bought this book, haven’t you?”, Dr Robert C Atkins demands those of us who did, indeed, pay for the cramps and stinking breath which are the legacy of his New Diet Revolution. “How long did you first hold it in your hands?” is Gladwell’s question for the people who bought Blink. “Two seconds? … Aren’t you curious about what happened in those two seconds?” With his brazen brand-repetition, over-familiarity and unlikely visions of the new, improved life that awaits the Blink alumnus, the younger guru repeatedly echoes the literary style of the late dietician, who liked to goad fatties with glimpses of the glorious rewards of dietary compliance: “My goal is to make you become a healthy and happy person and to show you how to stay that way.”

Gladwell, from his loftier perch, on the staff of the New Yorker, is no less eager to anticipate doubters, the better to prod them towards enlightenment. Can instant reactions really be inculcated? Most certainly. “The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate.” And if more of us did it, Gladwell believes, “we would end up with a different and better world”.

But what’s in it for him? This is not, admittedly, a question one would routinely put to an eminent contributor to the New Yorker, but his salesmanlike pitch is apt to elicit a matching, customer-like suspicion. Perhaps Gladwell simply believes that endless reiteration of Blink’s brilliant, life-changing potential is essential if it is to live up to his last bestseller, The Tipping Point, and thus enhance his new career as the unworldly, barefoot thinker the business community really trusts.

More here.

Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth

Roy F. Baumeister et al report:

Self_esteem_2Boosting people’s sense of self-worth has become a national preoccupation. Yet surprisingly, research shows that such efforts are of little value in fostering academic progress or preventing undesirable behavior.

People intuitively recognize the importance of self-esteem to their psychological health, so it isn’t particularly remarkable that most of us try to protect and enhance it in ourselves whenever possible. What is remarkable is that attention to self-esteem has become a communal concern, at least for Americans, who see a favorable opinion of oneself as the central psychological source from which all manner of positive outcomes spring. The corollary, that low self-esteem lies at the root of individual and thus societal problems and dysfunctions, has sustained an ambitious social agenda for decades. Indeed, campaigns to raise people’s sense of self-worth abound.

Consider what transpired in California in the late 1980s. Prodded by State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, Governor George Deukmejian set up a task force on self-esteem and personal and social responsibility. Vasconcellos argued that raising self-esteem in young people would reduce crime, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, school underachievement and pollution. At one point, he even expressed the hope that these efforts would one day help balance the state budget, a prospect predicated on the observation that people with high self-regard earn more than others and thus pay more in taxes. Along with its other activities, the task force assembled a team of scholars to survey the relevant literature. The results appeared in a 1989 volume entitled The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, which stated that “many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society.” In reality, the report contained little to support that assertion.

The California task force disbanded in 1995, but a nonprofit organization called the National Association for Self-Esteem (NASE) has picked up its mantle, aiming (according to its mission statement) to “promote awareness of and provide vision, leadership and advocacy for improving the human condition through the enhancement of self-esteem.” Vasconcellos, now a California state senator, is on the advisory board. Was it reasonable for leaders in California to start fashioning therapies and social policies without supportive data? Perhaps so. After all, practicing psychologists and lawmakers must deal with the problems facing them, even before all the relevant research is done. But one can draw on many more studies now than was the case 15 years ago, enough to assess the value of self-esteem in several spheres. Regrettably, those who have been pursuing self-esteem-boosting programs, including the leaders of NASE, have not shown a desire to examine the new work, which is why the four of us recently came together under the aegis of the American Psychological Society to review the scientific literature.

Read more here.


Farhad Manjoo reviews Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell in Salon:

GladwellIs there any contemporary American writer more agreeable than Malcolm Gladwell? Any writer, I mean, whose work is as reliably well received by so many different sorts of people — men and women, liberals and conservatives, business folk and academics, hipsters and wannabes, the serious and the silly? Search all you want: You won’t find a reader who doesn’t at least like Gladwell, and more often than not your hunt will turn up Gladwell obsessives — people who may consider the New Yorker’s politics communistic, its fiction dry, and its movie reviews inscrutable but who nonetheless subscribe to the thing for the work of just this one staff writer. And when, periodically, one of Gladwell’s dispatches pops into the magazine’s pages, the Gladwell obsessive will devour the piece, smile broadly and consider his subscription money very well spent, for he’s now chock-full of the most precious cocktail party banter — on why ketchup tastes so good, say, or why disposable diapers are like microchips, or why we ought to appreciate the good work of Ron Popeil.

Brace yourself: The release of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Gladwell’s delightful new book, is sure to inspire orgies of Gladwell-mania among the with-it set, and obsessives will soon begin popping up all around you. “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s wildly popular first book, established the writer as a cultural force. The phrase “tipping point” — which refers to the point during the spread of an epidemic or a fad at which a certain critical mass is met and after which, more or less, all hell breaks loose — is now a permanent fixture in the corporate lexicon, as common a biz-speak crutch as “core competencies” or “going forward.” A profile of Gladwell in Fast Company, whose cover this month is graced by the bushy-haired writer, notes that Donald Rumsfeld has even talked about the war in Iraq as being a tipping-point phenomenon.

More here.