DON’T GIVE IT A THOUGHT!
Business guru Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering says, yes, you can choose a book by its cover
BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Penguin Australia 2005. Paperback, $32.95. ISBN: 071399844X
Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking obscure scientific experiments and tying them in to much broader ideas. Take, for example, Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg’s study which took two groups of equallymatched students playing Trivial Pursuit. Members of the first group were told to take five minutes before the game started and think about what it meant to be a professor. The second group were to think about football hooligans. The first group faired a lot better. They were in a “smart” frame of mind. This is just one of the many investigations Gladwell covers. He analyses the Pepsi challenge, the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York, speed-dating, the “love lab” and the DNA of marriage, height-salary ratios, Morse code, involuntary facial expressions and Pentagon war games. It’s fascinating reading. But do all these disparate parts meld to form a cohesive theory? I’m not so sure.
The problem is that the publishers are pitching Blink as a self-help title. The best-seller list is littered with diet books and money-making manifestos – French Women Don’t Get Fat; He’s Just Not That Into You; Rich Dad, Poor Dad – which explains what the publishers are up to. But business guru Gladwell’s intentions are a bit more fuzzy.
On the surface Blink is about trusting your gut – hardly a new concept, but the author is such a science-based individual that the book reads as if it’s all news to him. Anyone who’s read his internationally acclaimed first book The Tipping Point will have pretty high expectations for this new release – expectations which, as it turns out, have the power to colour our judgement in either good or evil ways.
The sub-title, “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, is misleading if you read the word power as solely a positive thing. It’s true that much of Blink is taken up with impressive examples of snap decisions that make people heaps of money or save lots of lives. An equal portion is devoted to those subconscious decisions produced without the rational mind even realising a decision has already been made. First impressions are powerful, but not necessarily in a good way. Blink proves how we justify our instinctive judgements with a logic entirely unrelated to them – thereby validating prejudices we didn’t even know we had.
“Thin-slicing” is a key term in Blink and it refers to “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience”. For example, when we have to make sense of something very quickly – in a crisis, say, or when interviewing candidates for a job.
Gladwell introduces us to psychologist Samuel Gosling, who has shown how effective thin-slicing can be when judging people’s personalities. His experiment involved getting eighty college students to complete a personality questionnaire about themselves. He then had close friends of the eighty students fill out the same questionnaire. Next Golsing repeated the process with complete strangers who had never even met the people they were judging – all they saw were their dorm rooms, and were given 15 minutes to look around with a clipboard. The results of the experiment are quite surprising: While the close friends were better at measuring how agreeable and extroverted the subject was, on the whole, the complete strangers came out on top. Their conclusions were far more accurate in all other regards, like predicting emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness to new experiences.
Concludes Gladwell, “Forget the endless ‘getting to know you’ meetings and lunches, then. If you want to get a good idea of whether I’d make a good employee, drop by my house one day and take a look around”.
For me, there’s an absurd side to scientists proving the existence of instinct. Gathering reams of data to pinpoint and explain intuitive responses – it borders on the ridiculous. Granted, the human mind is naturally driven to explain the inexplicable, but to take this further and promote the supremacy of snap decisions over logical thinking is like saying that water is more important than food. We live in a technological age obsessed with data, but have we forgotten so much that we need to rediscover it all again?
Over-thinking has always been frowned upon. While the research in Blink is highly original, the concept isn’t:
In the words of the ancients one should make decisions in the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly.” – Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, written in the 1700s.
Conceding that Blink is preaching to the converted in my case, the focus shifts away from the book’s actual subject toward the biographies of the remarkable Americans collected for the project. We meet the owl-like professor and the smart cop; there’s the fireman who thinks he has ESP and the virtuoso car salesman. Gladwell paints beautiful portraits of these people and many more; he really is the Rembrandt of journalism in this regard. Together they form a brave and intelligent representation of American thought and endeavour.
So, is Blink lamb dressed as mutton or mutton dressed as lamb? Enlisting the Blink philosophy of utilising positive reinforcement to override subconscious prejudice, (perversely) I choose to read Blink as an antidote to the anti-American sentiment that currently plagues us. Medicine like this I’d happily take every day.
THE PATRON SAINT OF EELS
By Gregory Day
Sydney. Picador 2005. $22.00 ISBN: 0330421581
Do not be afraid of the saints of the new millenium. Fra Ionio, Patron Saint of Eels, seeks only to protect the eels and remind us of the magic of nature. The Patron Saint of Eels is set in the southern Victorian town of Mangowak, where the bush meets the sea. Noel Lee, an artist, is as concerned about tourism as the rest of the locals. When heavy rain floods the neighbouring swamp, hundreds of eels overflow into the ditches that surround Noel’s loft. The immortal Fra Ionio materializes – deus ex machina – to set them free.
The Patron Saint of Eels is a contemporary fable. Traditionally, fables carry wisdom through the ages. They are cautionary tales that tell us what we ought to do. Unlike fairy tales that give us hope and promise happy endings, fables are not concerned with wish-fulfilment. They are overtly moralistic and use scare tactics to prevent us from doing the wrong thing. Contemporary fables are losing their dark side, it seems.
The master of this genre, Italo Calvino, himself wrote a fable about eels. “The Cloven Youth” tells the story of a boy who is cut in half by a witch. This half-boy grows up, with half a head, half a body and just one leg. Out fishing one day he catches an eel and the eel says, “Let me go, and whatever you wish will be granted, for the sake of the little eel.” The boy lets the eel go. Then one day, as he is passing the palace, a princess on her balcony laughs at him. To punish her for laughing at his misfortunate appearance, he wishes that she were pregnant with his child. A baby is born and the princess is abused by her parents for the disgrace. When it is discovered that the cloven youth is the baby’s father, all three are trapped in barrel sent to the bottom of the ocean. The youth wishes again and for the sake of the little eel, they are safe on dry land with a banquet
before them and a palace all of their own.
The cloven youth, who is no longer cloven but handsome and whole, uses the little eel’s magic once more to punish the king but the princess pleads mercy for her father and he relents. “The king took them back to his palace where they all lived in harmony from then on. Unless they have died in the meantime, they may well be there to this day.”
Calvino’s fables are deadly – by which I mean phenomenally good. Gregory Day’s new work is more reminiscent of Tim Winton’s fable, Blueback. They are both set in small towns threatened by gentrification where nature is the maiden in need of protection. The characters are the keepers of the land and salvation lies in understanding and enjoying that responsibility. Day’s Nannette is wiry and freckled to Winton’s Dora, tough and sun-streaked. Both women like to keep to themselves. Despite their similarlities, these are very different books. The Patron Saint of Eels is in your face. Blueback is far more subtle.
NEVER LET ME GO
By Kazuo Ishiguro
London. Faber and Faber 2005. $29.95. ISBN: 0571224121.
The other day I saw a toddler wearing a t-shirt saying “Ruining It For Everybody”. Not wanting to wear a shirt like that myself, I’m in a difficult position reviewing Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s been five years since his last book came out, so the new one is eagerly awaited and now I’m afraid I’m going to hold out on you too. It’s lucky that it’s not just about ‘that’ anyway; as with all of Ishiguro’s books (think Stevens, the troubled butler in The Remains of the Day), there is always more going on than meets the eye.
So here I am, talkin’ loud and saying nothing, while Ishiguro does the exact opposite. When discussing his work I feel the same obligation to stay silent that one might feel in a library. His writing is quiet. His themes, on the other hand, are radical and universal – loud, that is. Never Let Me Go deals with love and friendship; it scopes out death. This uncanny mix of softly spoken clout has impressed the critics to the point where every one of his books has either won or been nominated for a major award. Look at how Ishiguro makes an insightful indictment of international defence and security policies, without going anywhere near the subject of current affairs. These are primary school children who think someone is plotting to abduct their beloved teacher.
“When it came down to it, though, I don’t recall our taking many practical steps towards defending Miss Geraldine; our activities always revolved around gathering more and more evidence concerning the plot itself. For some reason, we were satisfied this would keep any immediate danger at bay.”
How elegant and understated is that! Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
There are surprisingly few big-game writers that take it all on. Ishiguro’s style is both contemporary and classic. And he’s not afraid of fiction. Lately there’s been an obsession with keeping it “real”, which often results in books that fail to strike any chord at all. This book strikes so many chords you’ll end up feeling like a banjo in West Virginia.
To be honest, Never Let Me Go is really creepy. I didn’t actually enjoy reading it – though I’d recommend it highly. Ishiguro always opts for the first person narrative and he’s done so again this time. In interviews he will often discuss his somewhat unique method of auditioning characters for the lead role, spending a long time viewing the situation from one perspective then switching to another. Of course this means that by the time the book is published, we are only given access to the inside of one head. This is why I read the first page of Never Let Me Go with a sinking heart. I didn’t want to know this person who was talking to me and I didn’t want to hear her story either. The sense of something being very wrong here is immediately pervasive.
I’ve made this all sound like some big mystery and it’s not. It’s just that some things are better approached fresh, with as little prior knowledge as possible. It’s a shame I don’t want to say what it is about because that’s probably the reason a lot of people will buy it. Never Let Me Go is very topical, very now; let’s just hope it’s not very soon.
Reviewed by MICHAEL MORRISSEY:
GOING NATIVE: Living in the Australian Environment
By Michael Archer and Bob Beale
Hodder Headline Australia 2004. $35.
Awakening of ecological consciousness – and conscience – can occur at any time. A book, documentary, even a photograph can do the trick. However, I know of few books of this type that are as eloquent, well-documented and, in very sense of the word, down to earth, as this one. Its range is wide-sweeping, immense – from geology to palaeontology, from firestorms to educating children about the unique animals of their own country.
When the authors asked forty children to name ten animals that first came to mind – “no prompts, no preludes, no explanations” – all named cats and dogs and 85 per cent mentioned cows, horses, rats, elephants, giraffes, zebras, tigers, rhinoceroses and lions. Only 15 per cent named any Australian animal. Unsurprisingly, kangaroos were among the most mentioned. Koalas got a look in. With children’s animal perceptions firmly focused on African exotics and imported farm animals, what hope is there for full local ecological consciousness, for heart-felt caring for Australia’s numerous unique species?
In a reversal of cat and dog domination – and moggies come under heavy attack for various nasty diseases they can carry – Archer suggests buddying up with a quoll which, by his account, has all the best aspects of canine and feline qualities combined. It is clean like a cat, affectionate like a dog (even when not hungry!). Alas, Archer’s human-loving quoll bit a cane toad and died – legitimate reason for Archer to bring some heavy artillery to bear on this poisonous and ugly import. Mysteriously, the quoll appears to have two penises (penii?), or what Archer calls “a second erectile structure” – function as yet unknown. If their pro-pet theories seem a trifle cute, how about this (alas, too late) practical notion – if thylacines had been kept as pets, they might still be with us. Quolls and thylacines aside, the authors are no animal rights sentimentalists and strongly urge for the culling of kangaroos – “tasty, free-range, low-fat, low-cholesterol, disease-free, high-protein and environmentally superior” – for human consumption. The departure from the nineteenth century love of local animal tucker was of course a product of urbanisation.
This is a serious and sobering (though humour-seasoned) book which pleads for a radical change in the Australian agricultural sphere. Basically, a shift from sheep to trees. One of the main reasons for this suggestion – more than a suggestion – is the emergence of vast amounts of salty groundwater. A strategy to compensate for the resulting desertification is the hardy saltbush which thrives on salinity that will reduce less tough vegetation to bare ground. In the Bultarra region where merino farmer Robin Meares spearheaded the change, some 7.5 million plants have been earthed.
The authors deftly reel off summaries of all major extinctions by asteroid and meteor impact. The text in general is fact-studded with both actual and estimated figures. In contrast to their factual bombardment, the authors also include some vivid imaginary description of homo ergaster meeting kangaroos long before even the most recently extended date of man’s first arrival in Australia – say 100,000 years ago – and a similarly vivid evocation of Miocene forests at Riversleigh where numerous fossilised remains of unknown species of mammals have been found. They also challenge Tim Flannery’s “Blitzkreig Hypothesis” of megafauna extinction and assert that the impact of mining is actually very minimal and controlled whereas agriculture – the major factor in erosion – is not.
While Archer and Beale spare us no gloomy facts they also offer many practical solutions. Unlike the kind of ecological disaster books that only proffer litanies of doom – possibly to scare us into reacting – Going Native offers down to earth hope in the form of kangaroo culling, native grasses, planting saltbush and trees, and so on. This is an inspired and inspiring book that should be “planted” in all schools and libraries.
Hoaxes, Imposture, and Identity Crises in Australian Literature
Edited by Maggie Nolan and Carrie Dawson
University of Queensland Press, $22.50.
Caution: that latest Aborigine-authored novel may have been written by a whitefella; that heart-wrenching tale of racial prejudice, sexist control, arranged marriage, and murder in the name of honour may have been written by a housewife living in the suburbs of a reasonably safe city. Nor is academia safe from hoaxes, trickery, posing, chicanery.
None of this is new. History abounds with literary quackery. Sir John Mandeville’s 14th century Travels are widely considered to have been written by Jean de Bourgogne, a knavish Frenchman with a penchant for a tall tale of lands he had not visited. In Who’s Who, thirteen academics write thirteen essays examining the strategies of literary imposture, of wilful authorial schizophrenia. David Carter writing about Nino Culotta (aka John O’Grady) suggests there are two kinds of hoaxes – the first, which only works as long as it remains undiscovered, and the second which depends on being discovered. Carter observes that most scientific hoaxes belong in the first category. However, “examples of the second kind are `core business’ for the arts and humanities, from the Ern Malley affair to Sokal and Social text”.
The interesting thing about the good-natured (shall we say) mask of O’Grady is that when it was removed a month or so after publication, the truth seemed to boost rather than mar sales.
When the mask cannot be easily lifted, when it sticks too close to the skin, the wearer gets uncomfortable. O’Grady wrote to his son: “I have had Mr Culotta. I am heartily sick of Mr Culotta. There will be no sequel. There will be no `Cop this Lot’” – but of course there was. The moral might be – if the laughing guests like your clown face better than your own plain mug why not enjoy the ride? It can’t have been all bad because They’re a Weird Mob sold more copies than any other Australian novel until Bryce Courtenay came along.
If the case of Nino Culotta/John O’Grady was only an amusing soft shoe ethnic shuffle, the Demidenko-Darville duplicity has justly called forth righteous wrath. Susanna Egan indignantly notes that Darville talked of travelling to the Ukraine when she was 12, where she found her relatives in grinding poverty living in cottages with earth floors. She had been forced to give up her seat on the train to Jewish Communists, her grandfather and other relatives had been murdered by Jewish Communists, et cetera. Clearly, we are in the dark realms of what the intellectuals term imposture – though we could also call it hate-mongering fraud. Whatever one thinks of Darville and her misrepresentations, the scrutiny was prolific – three book studies within a year and countless more articles. In another such case, Binjamin Wilkomirski aka Bruno Dosseker (a Swiss gentile), who claimed to have been a child survivor of Nazi concentration camps, fell under suspicion because he kept shedding tears, whereas genuine survivors like author Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel remained dry-eyed. I keep thinking there is something we should all be learning from these cases but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps all authors should be subject to a pre-publication gender and ethnicity check (just kidding). From one deception to another, the motives are different. Some want a new and more successful literary career, some (I suspect) want to make their own ordinary life stories more interesting, more exotic than they are. This is an all too human wish to which many of us succumb every time we embellish a story about ourselves.
Being an academic set of texts, this psychological explanation is less fully examined than might have been the case otherwise. We are all wise, though no wiser after all is revealed. When truth wills out, the gaps in the lies seem glaringly obvious.
In the notorious case of Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Messages Down Under it was unearthed there was no “Real People Tribe”, no kidnapping, no voyage in the desert. And of course no one in the relevant area had heard of Morgan. The American term “Down Under” – never used by Antipodeans – should have been a leading clue to its falsity.
Despite this, Cath Ellis notes that the book is required reading in several American universities and an extract appears in a guidebook to Australia. Ms Morgan’s New Age trash fulfils an eternal desire that we all desperately want to be true – the civilised being can be made uncivilised and return to some more idealised primitive state. Lord Greystoke always wants to be Tarzan. It appears, then, that Morgan, by appealing to a mythic-cultural desire, has “succeeded”, while Darville, who told unsavoury ethnic lies, has failed. This collection of essays offers a thoughtful dissection of this intriguing ongoing phenomena, though its scope and analysis could conceivably have gone further: is this imposture peculiar to “developed” countries? Is Australia a world leader in literary deception? Watch this space.