When Malcolm Gladwell was growing up in a mostly Mennonite town in rural Canada, he had a hard time thinking of ways to be rebellious. He put up a Ronald Reagan poster in his bedroom. He was conservative because others were liberal. He kept his grades low. He considered a career in advertising — “the boards on the hockey rink, that sort of thing,” he said.
On Wednesday night, Gladwell and New Yorker editor David Remnick sat on stage at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street in dusty green arm chairs, lily-padding their way through different details of Gladwell’s adolescence and 20s. Remnick, in a blue blazer, gray slacks and black monk-strap loafers, asked the writer questions about his life and work. It was the first installment of The Big Story, a new monthly event where New Yorker editors and writers talk about themselves in front of an audience. There were 120 people there and nine of them, including Gladwell, wore the same things — button-down shirts under a sweater. Gladwell’s was a playful black cardigan with white seams. The event was streaming live on the Internet.
Remnick and Gladwell talked for an hour and seven seconds about the staff writer’s life and two of his stories: his latest piece about college rankings, and his story from October about Twitter’s role in revolutions, which editor and writer agreed has caused more response than anything in the magazine under his byline before. “It got a lot of reattention. It’s been retweeted,” Remnick said. Gladwell attributed this to people’s investment in technology. “People are so attached to their devices,” he explained. A couple with his-and-her smartphones — a BlackBerry and an iPhone — sitting over a plate of hummus at a circular table on one side of the room didn’t look up from their screens during this part of the interview.
After college, Gladwell moved to Washington and made a quick pit stop at the American Spectator before landing a job at The Washington Post. He charmed his way through his interview at the newspaper by talking about Caribbean literature, not his lack of experience.
“I worked my ass off to get into The Washington Post,” noted Remnick bitterly. The audience laughed. Gladwell was assigned to cover the weather for the Post — storm fronts in the Gulf Coast and Carolinas, for example — and there he found his inner rebel. “I had an insight very early on in my time at The Washington Post that I regard as the greatest insight of my life, which was: You should never do a good job at something you don’t want to do,” he said. “Once I realized that, it was kind of like the heavens parted.”
The two men took questions from the audience when their time was running down. A young man raised the issue of Twitter — does Gladwell use it? “I’ve never tweeted,” he said, scratching his leg. “People have tweeted on my behalf.” The young man asked Gladwell if he had Facebook. Yes, he does. The young man asked another follow-up question, and Gladwell blocked the stage lights with his long fingers to see where the questions were coming from. “Do you think you have the ability to criticize it as somebody who doesn’t necessarily use it?”
“Oh, I read it,” Gladwell said. He said he has it on his BlackBerry and made a “chh-chh” technology sound effect while miming with his thumbs as if he was pressing buttons on a small device. He likes to read things his friends tweet. “Like I said, these are awesome tools,” he added, fidgeting with the top on a water bottle resting next to his chair. “I just don’t know why it has to be perfect — right? — or why anyone would claim that it’s good at absolutely everything. Isn’t it enough that it’s an extraordinary means of sharing ideas and bringing people together?” Remnick watched him intently and listened, legs crossed.
Gladwell started to think of an example to illustrate his point and folded his hands over his stomach. “I love my bicycle but I can’t bike home to Toronto,” Gladwell said. He gestured with his lanky hands, palms up. “I mean, I accept the limitations of the tools in my life, I just wish others would do the same.”