Books: Outgrabing Lewis Carroll

This book promises to change 'the way you understand every decision you make'. Like all manuals spinning the self-evident, says Felix Dennis, it does no such thing.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It takes about 280 pages of claptrap, psychobabble and snappy subheadings ('The Power of the Glance', 'Listening With Your Eyes', 'The Perils of Introspection') for Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, to reach an astonishing conclusion. This is that certain people have an apparent innate ability to make faultless snap decisions while others do not.

As most of us seem to fall into the second category, the author sets out to investigate how we might improve judgments made in 'the blink of an eye' and learn to trust them. Thus, the second part of the book's title, Thinking Without Thinking. Gosh and golly!

Such a process used to be called 'trusting one's intuition'. However, referring to his main subject in such plain English would leave little opportunity for page after page of banal examples prefacing ambiguous and fatuous conclusions.

A moment's thought raises an interesting question. If his system is so effective, why is he still a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine?

Surely, by having applied his superhuman, precognitive powers of immediate deduction systematically, Gladwell by now should be the owner of The New Yorker. Or president of his country. Or richer than Bill Gates.

Any one of these happy events would have freed Gladwell from the necessity of earning the rent by writing books that camouflage a blinding glimpse of the obvious within the breathless prose and mind-numbing jargon of The Revelations of St John.

The answer is, of course, that no self-help book of any kind can possibly fulfil its touted objective - in this case a promise to change 'the way you understand every decision you make'. But Blink does no such thing.

The only achievement of books like this one is to confirm the hoary adages that all true believers are bores (or charlatans) and that suckers should never be given an even break.

Of far more interest than yet another handbook spinning the redundantly self-evident is the genre itself. Entering a chain bookstore today is to confront the power of marketing. And of all the departments within such emporiums where marketing chicanery and tosh are revealed at their most blatant, those sections housing the groaning shelves of self-help and self-improvement manuals reign supreme. Most especially, those concerned with management and business. To put it bluntly, they are a plague on mankind.

Surely a plague that does little harm? And perhaps this reviewer would agree, were it not for their constant recourse to pseudo-scientific drivel and the attacks on logic and reason they so often espouse.

Not to mention the dangerous assumption contained in many of them that 'anyone can achieve anything if they merely hand over 25 bucks at the check-out counter and study these astonishing techniques carefully at home'.

The 103 Secrets of Genghis Khan Management may raise a smile or a smirk among those of us lucky enough to have achieved any degree of success in our business lives already. But to discover that there are young men and women on their way up (or, even more sadly, older has-beens on their way out) actually attempting to apply the moronic 'advice' doled out in these tracts is not just sad - it's pathetic. Potentially lethal, too, not least to their own careers and those unlucky enough to report to them.

Snake oil is snake oil. Lord knows, I have peddled plenty of it in my own time as a magazine publisher, just as any publisher must do in the interests of humour and light relief. The crucial difference is that I've never made claims that it would do anything but entertain my readers. Yet each of these 'improve your life' tomes appears to contain enough promises of instant success and life-changing epiphanies to warrant a government health warning on the cover.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Gladwell wishing to make a buck.

But there is something disturbing about a society that cheerfully reviews Lewis Carroll gibberish in serious periodicals as if The Walrus and the Carpenter had something to tell us - other than that they intend to eat their oyster audience while singing for their supper. Or, to take another example from Through the Looking Glass:

'Twas brillig and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

When Alice asks Humpty Dumpty what these words mean, he ends by saying:

'Well, "outgrabing" is something between bellowing and whistling ... when you've once heard it you'll be quite content. Who's been repeating all that hard stuff to you?'

'I read it in a book,' said Alice.

Was this the same book, I wonder, that Gladwell consulted when writing Blink?

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Malcolm Gladwell; Penguin £16.99 MT price £14.99; To order, visit

- Felix Dennis is chairman of Dennis Publishing.

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