Today in the Oxfam bookstore, I bought Wisdom of Crowds by The New Yorker’s financial columnist James Surowiecki. I’m a sucker for The New Yorker, but I have to face it, hard to believe as it is, that while their staff writers excel at what they're employed to do, they suck at writing books. This book is bad in the same way that Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which I bought a while back, is, though not to the same frightening extent. The third book I got is not by a New Yorker staffer but effortlessly completes the triumvirate of mediocrity and wasted opportunity. Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat used to be freely available as an audiobook – that’s how I got it.
The topics covered by these books don't matter so much, and certainly not for this post. What's crucial is that all three books drown the many valid points they make in an ocean of stories and anecdotes, in verbal fluff and gild. The stuffing is chosen and prepared with an expert hand – and thoroughly amusing. Unfortunately, it's not intellectually stimulating. The sweet goo of diversion sequesters the essence of the books, out of reach of the casual reader. Style dominates over substance, and reading these three books is entertaining much like browsing through thelondonpaper on your way back from work or zapping through the channels when you get home is, in a mindless and profoundly mind-numbing way.
That's sad because surprising theories worth a thought or two are proposed in each of the books, gems of creative thinking. Judging their validity is hard because they're buried deep inside an elaborate written edifice full of distracting metaphors and self-serving linguistic constructs. Hundreds of examples are mini narratives in themselves, and even if the point they're supposed to illustrate is repeated time and again, a superficial reader goes home with a set of stories but not the underlying message.
More problematically, there are countless analogies and metaphors that are strained to the point of breaking. Inevitably, they're amusing to read. On closer inspection, they present themselves as vacuous and sometimes seriously misleading. I can only guess that the writers accept these stylistic flaws willingly, that they cover substance with so much style in the desire to distract from the weak points of their arguments or to prevent the reader from noticing them in the first place. W.C. Fields suggested to dazzle them with bull if you can’t baffle them with brilliance. New Yorker staff writers and seasoned New York Times columnists certainly know how to wield the pen dazzlingly, but maybe it would sometimes be better to read something by a less accomplished writer. The thoughts might be less obstructed by ornate embellishments.
Baroque decorations are tiresome but not lethal. What kills all three books is the same severe methodological flaw. Giving example after example doesn’t prove a point. It just proves that you found examples that agree with the thesis you’re presenting. There is no such thing as corroborating evidence. Examples are just that, examples, and presenting dozens or hundreds of them doesn’t elevate their stature or add to the argument in any substantial way.
An idea can only be developed with the help of counterpoints and dissent, by disagreeing with what has already been presented. Only when flaws in the logic of a hypothesis are uncovered and ways found to get around them can one refine a model. Only through questioning can one further understanding of the problem at hand and advance one's knowledge. This is a point, I’m happy to report, that a fourth book doesn’t tire of making, example after repetitive example.
In The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, the eponymous bird is a metaphor for the unexpected and the book an impassioned plea not to take reality at face value, not to base judgment on examples, no matter how many there are and how convincing they seem. The potency of examples &ndash and experience – extends to the present only, and they are thus poor tools for the prediction of the future. They help us make sense of today, but tomorrow already, the unexpected – a Black Swan – might happen, forcing us to reinterpret all we've seen so far and pick up the debris of established models.
This book was insightful and truly eye-opening, well written, challenging to the mind, and a pleasure to read – not only on the surface. As I had only read about a third of it before returning it to the library when going on vacation in July, I keep returning to the Oxfam bookstore to see whether they might have it for me. Sadly, all I ever find are the same old books by glorified magazine writers and journalists. Nassim Taleb would certainly point out that these observations mean nothing for the future. One day, a Black Swan will wait for me on the shelf.