Blink (2005)

During our January 2009 meeting we discussed the following book selected by Burk Ketcham:

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, Little Brown and Company, 2005.


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
Aside | This entry was posted in 2009 Selections, Blink. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Blink (2005)

  1. Burk Ketcham says:

    Book Club Members:

    When I volunteered to lead the book discussion in January I did not have a
    book in mind. I had thought it would be a work of fiction.

    Then a female friend loaned me several books including “Blink.”
    I selected “Blink” because it was an easy read which might be less of a
    burden during the busy holiday season.

    The author, Malcolm Gladwell, has achieved enviable status as a
    writer. As noted in the New York Times Book Review of January 4,
    2009, all three of the books he has turned out are one of the
    top ten books on either the Times hard cover or paperback best sellers
    list. The others are the recently issued “Outliers: and “The Tipping
    Point” which preceded “Blink.” Gladwell writes for the “New Yorker”
    and is of mixed parentage; his mother is Jamaican.

    In its brief book description on the best sellers list, the “New York
    Times” summed up “Blink” as follows: “The importance of instinct in the workings
    of the mind.”

    As you learn from reading the book, those instincts don’t always work
    to our own personal advantage. I can cite one that was right on and
    another which was all wrong.

    In 2002 for six days I participated in “The Hiroshima Flame Interfaith
    Pilgrimage” which involved taking a lantern lit from the
    original Hiroshima flame from Chief Seattle’s grave near
    Bainbridge Island to the UN at New York City. The pilgrimage was led by Buddhist
    monks and nuns and involved considerable walking and stops at churches and the
    like for meals and sleeping. I wrote up the experience in a paper entitled
    “So All May See the Light.” The following is my description of one segment of
    the walk on Bainbridge Island on January 16, 2002:

    “About a mile from Winslow, where the Eagle Harbor
    Congregational Church is located, a fairly tall slim man came up and was
    embraced by Gerry, the person who was coordinating the Bainbridge Island portion
    of the walk. The man fell into the procession beside me and walked in
    a hunched-over position with his hands up his sleeves for warmth. My initial
    reaction was that he might be a little retarded. Even after he abandoned
    that posture I was not sure what to make of him. We never spoke.
    Inside the church, the minister greeted us and Gerry introduced my recent
    walking companion who was now sitting in the back pew. He was non other than
    island resident David Gutterson, the author of “Snow Falling on Cedars.” I guess
    the wisdom here is don’t judge a book by its cover!”

    As most of you know, I am a widower who lives alone in one of five
    apartments in an old Weyerheuser mansion near Stadium High School. My
    apartment is on the lower level and fronts on a driveway and a spacious back
    yard. I grew up in the New York City suburbs and still tend to eat fast as is
    common in that part of the world. One day I was eating some round steak which
    got stuck in my windpipe and I was choking. I had learned that raising
    your arms over your head sometimes worked; it did not. My next thought was
    to run out on the driveway even though there is infrequent human or
    auto activity there. On my way to the front door I spotted one of the
    living room chairs with a high cushioned back and thrust myself on it so that it
    punched right under my sternum – my own Heimlich maneuver. It worked and I was
    able to breathe again. All of this must have happened in less than 10
    seconds. I have tried to trace the knowledge that put the instinct to do
    what I did in my head and really can not determine if I had ever heard or read
    of doing that. Whatever it was, it was a life
    saving “blink.” I would not be sitting here now had I run out into
    the driveway.

    In his introduction Gladwell noted the three points he wanted to
    make. The first was: “…decisions made very quickly can be every bit as
    good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” I think he
    made that point with the many illustrative stories. Certainly, my
    choking experience was proof for me.

    His second point was in the form of a question – “….. when should we
    trust our instincts and when should we be wary of them?” In this case I
    think he was able to show that our minds have developed certain ways of relating
    to or being influenced by certain preconceived prejudices. This was shown in the
    way many blacks relate to themselves as well as the way non-blacks relate to
    blacks. Just because one looks retarded and does not speak does not mean
    he or she is retarded. And in the case of Warren Harding, just
    because he looked presidential did not mean that he was presidential. You
    often heard that that thug George W. Bush would be a nice guy with
    whom to share a beer. Well, half of the population of the US blinked
    wrong on that! Bush now ranks lower on the scale than Harding as an
    incompetent president of this country.

    We might note as an aside that the plight, stereotypes and instincts about
    blacks in this country was similar to those experienced by the American Indian
    as depicted in our prior reading of “Regeneration Through Violence:
    .. .”

    The last is: “To convince us that our sharp judgements and first
    impressions can be educated and controlled.” Again, Gladwell’s many
    anecdotes and examples, particularly relating to police activities,
    psychology and hospital emergency rooms, showed that the judgement
    process can be improved.

    Since all except one member of the book club was in attendance, I will not
    attempt to review the discussion except to say that most of us seemed to
    subscribe to the wisdom of “Blink.”

    Gladwell sums up the book by saying it is all about ” …. this
    magical thing called judgement.” He goes on to add that “We have come to
    confuse information with understanding.” And finally: “The key to
    good decision making in not knowledge. It is understanding. We
    are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the later.”

    The summations were music for my ears. Back in 2001 I spent about six
    months writing a book length manuscript under the title “Pleonexia” and the
    subtitle “America’s Insatiable Need for More.” I was unable to get it
    published. In the preface to the document I penned these words:

    “It must be remembered too that information is not necessarily
    knowledge. The great philosophers and humanists who have written about the
    state of civilization were not overloaded with information. They listened
    to their inner voices and educated insights about the human condition.
    They could see the woods from the trees. We desperately need more of that

    I believe that in reading mysteries such as those written by Sir
    Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Alan Poe we learned how Holmes and Dupin used their
    educated insights to solve the murders. In a sense they did not go off in
    all directions collecting data; they used an algorithm of their own invention to
    get to the point.

    We can also relate “Blink” to Birkerts’ “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of
    Reading in an Electronic Age.” Birkerts wrote: “We are experiencing in our times
    a loss of depth – a loss, that is, of the very paradigm of depth. Wisdom is
    being swamped by data.”

    Wisdom comes from experience and by study through discussion with others
    and through reading both fiction and non fiction. In closing I revert back
    to the words of Francis Bacon who lived from 1561 to 1626:

    “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some
    few to be chewed and digested; that is some books are to be read only in parts,
    others to be read but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with
    diligence and attention.”

    There are many roads to making good judgements. “Blink” brings that
    point home to a non scientific reading public.

    Burk Ketcham
    January 11, 2009

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    I will always remember an experience I had many years ago during my first year in graduate school. I had a paper due for one of my classes, and I had put off working on it until the last minute. I knew almost nothing about the topic so I rushed to the library and started looking up everything I could find about the topic, taking notes as I did so. I got back to my room and worked all night stringing together a summary of what I had learned about the topic. When I was finished, I read through my paper and thought it was a pretty good. I had found several studies that described really interesting phenomena, and I had done my best to tie them together in terms of some underlying common themes, etc. A few days later I got the paper back from the professor who was teaching the course with a grade of “C” (a failing grade in graduate school) and the following comment written in red ink across the top — “Your review is neither exhaustive nor selective”. I could have gotten a passing grade if I had taken lots more time to make sure I had tracked down every published paper that related to my topic, and exhaustively described the results of each one, even if I did not have enough deep understanding of the topic to bring out the most important underlying themes. I could have also gotten a passing grade if I had understood enough about the topic to selectively pick out a few key studies that illustrated the most important underlying themes of the topic. However, I was in over my head, and did not yet have enough deep understanding of the topic to pull out those underlying themes. What I had put together was a list of several studies I had happened to find during a quick trip to the library along with a superficial attempt to tie them together. My paper seemed good to me, but obviously looked silly to my professor who had a deeper understanding of the topic.

    I am afraid my judgment of Blink is similar. Based on the responses of others in our book club, it is obvious that Gladwell has a real knack for writing popular books that are entertaining. I agree that the phenomena described in the book are fascinating, and provide a good read, even a page turner. However, the phenomena that are described are a small sampling of a much larger subset of similar results that could have been included, and the particular phenomena that are chosen for inclusion in the book are “neither exhaustive nor selective.” Gladwell is obviously a really smart individual, and a quick study. However, to the specialist who has a deeper understanding of the topics Gladwell is writing about, the book was frustrating to read.

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