Back in the rough and tumble days before the vast digital landscape was scored with roadways to full archives of certain publications, I used to devote thought and energy to tearing pages out of magazine. Our filing cabinet had a folder stuffed full of articles either I or my partner-in-all-things found interesting enough that we wanted the option of revisiting them somewhere down the line. A sizable number of these came from The New Yorker. These weren’t yanked indiscriminately, but nor we we making a concerted effort to assemble the work of certain writers. I wasn’t even looking at the byline all that often. Only later, when perusing the wooly collection of articles, did I realize that a sizable number of them were written by Malcolm Gladwell.
By then, I’d already raced through some of Gladwell’s books, initially inspired to do so by an engrossing hour of the Commonwealth Club‘s radio program, in which he largely talked about findings and theories shared in his book Blink, new at the time. Gladwell exhibiting an infectious eagerness for putting together ideas, especially those that might initially seem wildly different from each other. In a way that I found immensely appealing, Gladwell was clearly using the act of writing to help him make sense of the world. Realistically, that’s what all writers do. In Gladwell’s case, it was just more overt, standing as the explicitly stated goal. His writing has a jaunty freedom to it, as if any notion that alit in his brain — if there are multiple variations of mustard, why isn’t there a similar wide-ranging creativity when it comes to ketchup? — was fair game to strike out on an adventure of sociological journalism. As much as any author of fanciful fictions, Gladwell’s creativity was colored with an effusive sense of possibility, a plainspoken declaration of “Well, why not?”
I enjoy Gladwell’s books, but shorter forms suit him better, and not just because the heady success he found in the business section of the bookstore with both Blink and The Tipping Point sometimes makes later bound works seem like they’re straining a touch too hard to connect with the same audience. Gladwell prospers when he’s following an inkling as far as it can go and not particularly worrying about whether it needs to be kicked along a little further. That makes The New Yorker an ideal home. Even before he became a contributor with major bestsellers on his CV, Gladwell noted with delight that The New Yorker editors basically let him write about whatever struck him as interesting. The nature of the publication allowed the luxury of assurance that they could always find a home somewhere in their pages for whatever he tapped out, be it relatively lightweight or serious as can be. His penchant for intricate, almost clinical examinations of social data routinely leads to novel but compelling assessments of situations that are too often unhelpfully reduced to the maudlin. Gladwell brings empathy to his work, but he doesn’t let that impede his primary focus: figuring out the deeper, obscured truth. To his everlasting credit, he is writer that tirelessly strives for revelation.
—Doris Kearns Goodwin