The Malcolm Gladwell Paradox

blinkIn a recent Guardian interview shared by Tyler Cowen, controversial popularist Malcolm Gladwell offers this insight:

Re-reading is much underrated. I’ve read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold once every five years since I was 15. I only started to understand it the third time.

I’m pretty sure that this contradicts the entire premise of Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink, but I’ve only read it once.  Scanning Gladwell’s own Q&A on the book, however, would seem to confirm my first impression — which, ironically, confirms the book but contradicts the advice on re-reading.

In fairness, I was only able to confirm this by re-reading — so there’s some value in it.  But maybe I need to read it a third time to be sure?

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    I only read half of Blink, so I should be even further ahead 😉

    … but I don’t think Gladwell suggested that all classes of problems were “blink” ones, only some.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I’ve been re-reading Thomas Pynchon’s V. and Gravity’s Rainbow every year for the past 30-some years. Each reading offers new insights, or those that I’d not considered before.

    Granted, these are fiction and differ considerably from non-fiction. Non-fiction is mostly a one-time-through affair as the facts or analyses have grown stale after even a brief passage of time for contemporary works and somewhat less for more historical stuff.

  3. David says:

    Blink’s focus, as I understood it, was more on the social impact of first impressions and how often they are reliable (or biased). So it’s not about lasting impressions so much as snap judgments. Now if you looked at the cover of Blink every three years and said “I’ll hate that,” that might fall more in line with both Gladwell’s quote and his writings!

  4. Joe says:

    I listened to “Blink” on CD, but I think the gist of the book was that our first impressions of some things are remarkably accurate, while in other cases remarkably inaccurate. I don’t think Gladwell actually came to a real conclusion in that book, in my opinion.

  5. john personna says:

    If you ask me, the weirder phenomena is the minor industry in Gladwell-hating. I’m not sure I get it. Some people seem to think a Gladwell book should say everything true about the world (like a Bible) and attack it when it falls short. It’s just a book, man, and if it says some true things that’s doing pretty good.

    I don’t know, maybe the haters just wish they had the gig – write books with I suppose medium effort, and vault to the best-seller lists every time.

  6. James Joyner says:

    If you ask me, the weirder phenomena is the minor industry in Gladwell-hating. I’m not sure I get it.

    I like Gladwell and have bought at least two of his books. I just noticed a cursory contradiction and found it amusing.

    Popularists, generally, seem to draw haters. David Brooks and Tom Friedman are other examples. By being glib and giving cutesy names to things and then drawing gross generalizations — and thereby often making the world much clearer to lay people — they gloss over differences that piss off experts.

  7. 11B40 says:


    One of my father’s many gifts to me was when he told me, “You haven’t really read a book until you’ve read it at least twice.”