Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell is known for his gift of explanation. In Blink he studies the “hows” and “whys” of split-second decisions. In Outliers he tackles the “who” behind success. But in his first book, The Tipping Point, he focuses on “what”, as in what makes certain phenomena spread across cities, states, countries, even the world. He offers detailed insight into the precise moment something goes viral, when mere events or spectacles get nudged over the line and become crazes. Like when Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me-Elmos and fidget spinners went from toys on a store shelf to national obsessions.

According to Gladwell, the tipping point is the “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” With language usually reserved for the medical field, Gladwell discusses “infections” and “epidemics” that happen across disciplines ranging from medicine, criminology, commercialism and urban development. Backed by studies and anecdotal materials he identifies important moments during specific phenomena’s lifespans. With an uncanny ability to infuse dry material with a dose of, he takes readers through different phenomenon and pinpoints the causes in a way that can change your viewpoint.

As is Gladwell’s signature style, he points out problems and the obscure solutions and explains why it’s obvious. For instance, New York’s improved subway safety can be traced, not to more police presence, but to fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti. Why? Because those things symbolize a breakdown of society thereby giving the criminals a perceived camouflage. Removing the pervasive low-level criminal elements (graffiti and vandalism) makes the next level (muggers, gangs) stand out.

In a different example, Baltimore’s successful needle exchange program wasn’t a success because of the medical agencies going out and exchanging needles one by one. The “retailers”, addicts who picked up hundreds of discarded needles, traded them in and made a small business out of selling clean needles to fellow addicts for a dollar. It doesn’t diminish the success of the program, but it changes the way it operates.

The most striking comes from an edition of Gladwell’s book that includes a new afterward by the author. He compares an epidemic of suicide among teen boys in Micronesia and the school shootings done by teen boys in the United States.  In both cases, the boys were “infected” with the ideas. In Micronesia it can be traced to a well-known affluent young man who killed himself as part of a love triangle. In the United States, it can be traced to Columbine. The fact that they can be traced at all means there’s reasoning, logic and methodology to the phenomena. It also means there is hope of curtailing it, if not completely stop it.

That’s what makes The Tipping Point so interesting. His findings give people reason to look at problems in different ways, looking for a solution that may not make sense in theory but does in practice.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast, 2014

It was against my parents principles to talk about death. Roz Chast

Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman. They do horror alright, but if you want something visceral—heart palpitating, shake you to the core, staring up at your ceiling at three a.m. scary—Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a must read.

Most horror happens in a realm of fantasy. Think supernatural creatures or twisted psychopaths you’d have a million in one chance of crossing paths with in real life.

In New Yorker cartoonist’s Roz Chast’s graphic novel, the villain is age.

Also, it’s not meant to be a horror story.

Specifically, it’s a memoir of her parent’s old age and eventual deaths. And for those readers lucky enough to still have their parents, Chast’s work is unnerving as it spells out in detail the cruel indignities of aging. Not just from the elderly perspective, but from the caregivers who may be torn between the needs of parents and the needs of their own children.

The sobering graphic novel touches on a part of aging few of us think about: deterioration. We dread the death but forget that it can takes years to get to that point. As each day passes there’s a loss of some kind: loss of independence, loss of control, loss of memory. And the one we aren’t supposed to talk about…loss of money. Yes, it’s quite expensive to die in the United States. Even more expensive to stay alive. Assisted living facilities, nursing homes, at home help and hospice— all these things cost money and even the most frugal savers can find themselves with a the dubious gift…living longer than expected and outliving their means.

Much like Chasts’ 2017 Going Into Town, the book is informative with the same conversational tone. CWTASMP it’s much more personal. While she recounts her parents’ death, she’s also definitely working through the complicated relationships she had with them.

I wasn’t kidding about the book being scary. Like Chast, I’m an only child.  Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about all our futures, especially when in ten years I’ll have three kids in college. This book doesn’t really do anything to allay those concerns.

Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast, 2017

It began as a small booklet I made for my daughter before she left her home in Suburbia to attend college in Manhattan. Roz Chast

I’ve only been to New York City, Manhattan specifically, once in my life. It was a about seven months after 9/11 and even though I’d never set foot on its streets prior to that visit, I could tell the city wasn’t itself. In fact, the United States was trying to adjust to a new reality and there was this sense that we were all acting normal though we weren’t feeling it. As such, I missed out on the energy and hustle and bustle for which New York is known.

Roz Chast is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker. She’s also written and illustrated several books.

She makes it clear that this book is not meant to be guidebook. There are no detailed descriptions of places and activities, though she included plenty of hand drawn maps. It’s more like a “how to” book. How to navigate Manhattan, how to live in Manhattan and how to enjoy Manhattan. It’s also a persuasive argument about why to love Manhattan. The book is utterly charming in its sincerity.

Several pages show readers the grid that makes up most of Manhattan’s transportation system: avenues vs. streets, cross streets, the importance of Fifth Avenue, etc. There’s a chapter devoted to using the subway, complete with descriptions of the number and letter trains and the shuttle, taxis and buses needed to complete the journey.

It’s as informative and as it is entertaining. Chast has an easy to understand writing style, paired with jittery sketch-ish illustrations that help convey the meaning. Despite growing up in Brooklyn and living in Manhattan for years, she has a folksy Midwestern friendliness not usually ascribed to New Yorkers. Her teachings are done with patience and her insights are thoughtful enough to include what most New Yorkers probably take for granted. The tone is optimistic and assuring.

Though she left New York in the early nineties, Chast and the city parted on good terms and she has nothing but lovely things to say about the relationship.