Reading Ripley: And Gladwell too!


In search of “adventure stories” and “wonderful, thrilling” events: Yesterday, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t face it.

We couldn’t face the negativity of continuing with our thread—our thread about Amanda Ripley’s lack of interest in low-income kids.

Ripley has published an interesting, ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Her education proposals may make perfect good sense for middle-class students.

But the challenges facing (many) low-income kids barely appear in her book. We plan to return to this topic next week. Yesterday, we couldn’t face it.

Then, we saw a post by Malcolm Gladwell which made us think of Ripley’s intriguing book.

We’ve often thought of the mega best-selling Gladwell as we’ve read Ripley’s book. Earlier in the week, Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, was criticized by Christopher Chabris in a post at Slate.

Yesterday, Gladwell responded. This passage made us think of Ripley’s problematic text:
GLADWELL (10/10/13): I write in the genre of what might be called “intellectual adventure stories.” Books like David and Goliath combine narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently. I have always tried to be honest about the shortcomings of this approach. Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages.


Chabris should calm down. I was simply saying that all writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. My point was that the people who read my books appreciate this. They are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form.
In that passage, Gladwell describes his best-selling books as “intellectual adventure stories.” There’s a place for “storytelling,” he says. Non-fiction writing doesn’t always need the precision of academic work.

We don’t necessarily disagree. Nor do we have any particular opinion of Gladwell’s best-selling books. But in her own high-profile book, Ripley frequently takes tremendous liberties as she tells her “adventure stories”—adventure stories which are designed to make you favor types of reform widely advanced by certain elites.

In our view, the reforms Ripley favors may make perfect sense—for middle-class kids. But she almost completely ignores the circumstances of low-income kids, and she takes enormous liberties as she tries to convince us of the merits of her proposals.

Next week, we’ll return to Ripley’s brief, dismissive treatment of the needs of low-income and minority kids. We think her lack of interest in these kids represents a major hole in her book.

We’ll also return to the “adventure story” she tells concerning miraculous Finland. We want you to see the lengths to which she seems to go to craft a thrilling adventure story.

Back to Gladwell! Last Sunday, the New York Times ran an interview with the tyro. Reading this Q-and-A, we thought of Ripley:
NEW YORK TIMES (10/6/13): Which writers do you find yourself returning to again and again—reading every new book and rereading the old?

GLADWELL: The two contemporary writers whom I consider as role models are Janet Malcolm and Michael Lewis. I reread Malcolm’s “Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession” just to remind myself how nonfiction is supposed to be done. I love how ominous her writing is. Even when she is simply sketching out the scenery, you know that something wonderful and thrilling is about to happen. Lewis is tougher, because what he does is almost impossible to emulate...I read Lewis for the same reasons I watch Tiger Woods. I’ll never play like that. But it’s good to be reminded every now and again what genius looks like.
We were struck by Gladwell’s praise for Malcolm. In Malcolm’s (nonfiction) writing, you always “know that something wonderful and thrilling is about to happen.”

We thought of Ripley’s text. What if you’re writing about some topic, or some set of events, where “something wonderful and thrilling” didn’t actually happen? In the case of Ripley, it’s fairly clear what the modern best-selling author may decide to do:

Uh-oh! If “something wonderful and thrilling” didn’t happen, the modern writer may decide to embellish her facts a tad. In effect, she may decide to pretend that something thrilling occurred.

We first used the term “novelized news” in 1999. Increasingly, our “journalism” is defined by embellishment—the kind of embellishment that lets writers tell adventure stories about sets of thrilling events.

In Ripley's case, some reviewers seemed to play this familiar game too! Several reviewers embellished Ripley's claims, which were already somewhat embellished. In their hands, the adventure story became more thrilling yet!


  1. Has Bob Woodward spent the past 40 years writing adventure stories, filling his books with thrilling imaginary dialogue worthy of O'Neill and Chayevsky? What about Carl Sagan and a host of other for-the-public scientists? Are their less-than-academic volumes little more than Michael Crichton thrillers with some fun facts thrown in for snob appeal? Are Stephen Hawkings's books little more than potboiler pastisches extending the Star Trek/Wars series?

    Say it ain't so, Malcolm. I've spent at least 10,000 hours slogging through this junk hoping to achieve a degree of mastery over a few key subjects. Now you tell me I've been reading not reasonable approximations of how the world is but adventure stories?

    If I've reading adventure stories, let me go back to Jack London, John Buchan, Alexander Dumas, Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and a host of others from pre-cable days who really knew how to tell a story. Not these dilletantes of today who think they can give us the best of both worlds. Are Malcolm Gladwell et al. giving us the lit'ry version of retroscripted reality TV? Once again, leave that to the professionals, like Kim Kardashian

  2. In answer to you first question, yes.

  3. Yesterday, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t face it.

    We couldn’t face the negativity of continuing with our thread.

    We started out on burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff.

    Everybody said they’d stand behind us when the game got rough

    But the joke was on us there was nobody even there to call our bluff.

    Just like Daizabaal Blues (with the Goddess of Gloom from Doom)

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