Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell was released in early September 2019 and I didn't know a great deal about it when I bought it on a whim after seeing it on the Audible homepage. I assumed from the title that it would be something to do with the way we interact with people we don't know and perhaps some of the psychology behind it. The book starts by describing the case of a Black American woman who was arrested for a very minor traffic offence and ended her life in prison a few days later. Gladwell then tells us that through an exploration of various case studies involving interaction between strangers, we will be able to understand why this sequence of events took place.
Anyone who has read Gladwell's work will probably be aware that his books are not the type to offer concrete action points to take away at the end; rather they are intended to give the reader food for thought and perhaps reframe the way they look at certain problems. With this in mind and having read and enjoyed David and Goliath, I started listening to his latest book, Talking to Strangers, with the expectation that it would be interesting and thought-provoking, even if it was not immediately applicable in my daily life.
What follows the introduction is a series of in-depth stories, some describing people who were able to hide an aspect of themselves for a long time, others about strategies that people have used when faced with behaviours that are difficult to judge or understand. There were some interesting - albeit not always new - ideas in there. He explores the human tendency to assume something is true until we no longer have a choice and emphasises that, while this can lead to occasionally misjudging people with bad intentions, it is an essential part of being human. He also talks about a theory called "coupling" which suggests that a person's actions are directly dependent on where they are. One point I had no clue about was the theory and decisions that have lead to an aggressive type of policing in parts of the US now; this I found quite insightful.
While these tidbits were somewhat diverting, though, I was consistently searching for the link between them. I hoped it would be made clear at the end, but considering how long we had taken to get there and how many different factors had been explored along the way, the conclusion felt very rushed. It returned to the original scene of the crime: Sandra Bland's interaction with the policeman, added more detail about the subsequent investigation, and incorporated some of the ideas discussed in the book. His final argument felt very flimsy and there was a lot left unexplained, which only emphasised the feeling that the different chapters had no solid connection. There was no narrative thread, no clearly stated initial thesis to refer to as each story was explored; there were just stories - sometimes entertaining, sometimes educational, sometimes very disturbing and explicit, which brings me to my main problem with this book.
As I mentioned, the beginning of the book was quite entertaining in a "did you know" kind of way; it talked about Cuban spies who had hidden themselves for years in American intelligence departments and an investment advisor who had schemed many people out of their money. Then, we reached chapter five and next thing I knew I was sitting on the bus listening to graphic accounts of rape. I kept going, assuming it would be short and there was a justified reason why I needed to know about these assaults in such explicit detail. The reason didn't become apparent, but eventually it ended and I breathed a sigh of relief. We returned to rather less graphic topics and I thought all was safe. Until it wasn't: I was subjected to matter of fact, step-by-step descriptions of waterboarding, how torture can drive its victims to amnesia, a minute-by-minute recounting of Sylvia Plath's last moments and suicide and the similar attempts and eventual success by her friend and fellow poet, Anne Sexton. This is not a social worker's guide to dealing with trauma or a textbook for the study of psychology or healthcare or PTSD. It's not even a general interest book about rape or torture or suicide. It is shelved with books on management or popular psychology in bookshops and marketed as a book for the masses. Yet, for all this, there is not one warning, neither in the author's note and introduction, nor preceding the descriptions themselves, that would prepare the reader for what is to come. I read this book as someone who, alhamdu Lillah, does not suffer from any kind of trauma that would make this content triggering. I still found it disturbing, distasteful and completely unnecessary. How then would someone with a difficult history respond to such descriptions?
While this put Gladwell's sensitivity in question, a couple of sentences in his chapter on torture also significantly damaged his credibility as a researcher. Near the beginning of the chapter, he introduces the prisoner on whom the torture was carried out. He gives his full name and then says that this man was known as "Mukhtar". This will be a very familiar name to some of you; it means "chosen one" and comes from the root word related to the concept of choice. You don't need to know this to find out the meaning though - search "mukhtar name meaning" on Google now and you'll see. Find it? I told you; it's a common name. So I was surprised when Gladwell told us it meant "the brain". He then embellished it by saying it meant this man was "the brain" behind the attacks he was suspected of. How did he get to "the brain" from "chosen one"? My guess is that he picked up the first few letters of the word - "mukh", or brain - and used that for his Google search instead. Is that an acceptable mistake for a writer of his repute?
All in all, Gladwell's writing and narrating style, along with his reputation, were able to keep my attention, but were not enough to make up for the lack of a clear connecting thread to guide the reader through. There were some interesting ideas in there, but nothing particular really stuck and the final points were rather unconvincing, in part because there didn't seem to be a clear thesis to start with. It didn't help, either, that the conclusion was over almost as soon as it started and felt very rushed. Ultimately, though, my respect for the process was lost at the gratuitous drawn-out descriptions of several forms of violence and I don't know if any ending would have been convincing enough for me to come out of this book thinking I could recommend it.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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