Revisionist History and 5 more Malcolm Gladwell podcasts

We look at the bestselling author's Revisionist History series, and some of his other podcasting highlights

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 14 Dec 2017
  • Malcolm Gladwell

Much has been said lately about balance. About how news organisations are incapable of, for example, discussing a climate change report without canvassing the opinion of someone who insists that the sun doesn’t actually exist. Because it’s important to hear both sides of the debate, right?

The big beasts of American podcasting – This American Life, Radiolab – get around this by presenting their cases without ever really reaching a climax. They’ll tell you what’s going on (“it appears that the US government has been seized by history’s stupidest autocracy...”) but they won’t tell you their conclusions (“...and this is a bad thing.”)

In Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t go in for any of this pussyfooting around. Maybe it’s because he’s sold more books than Shakespeare, but he’s pretty confident about throwing his opinion about on subjects as big as the civil rights struggle and as small as McDonalds’ chips. It’s refreshing, and because he explains things in a clear, logical way, it’s pretty convincing too. Most illuminating are the episodes about the insanity and intensity of racism in the Southern US just 50 years ago, and how it’s inconceivable that America could have racial justice any time soon with such a legacy.

Sometimes though, like in the last couple of episodes of season two, there’s something not quite right. These are the ones where he takes down the guys who crusaded against the evils of saturated fats, and who ended up destroying both the health of millions and the crunchiness of McDonalds’ chips (Gladwell is palpably upset about the latter, not outwardly bothered by the former). These chip-destroying bastards were wrong, we understand that now. Saturated fats aren’t the problem, or so scientific orthodoxy tells us.

Is Gladwell guilty, though, of making the same mistake as the chip murderers before him, by not considering the possibility that the current academic consensus is flawed? It sometimes feels like he’s critical of others for being too unyielding with their opinions, while at the same time pushing his own theories with the assurance of an evangelist.

In any case, the primo episode has nothing to do with science or society or social anthropology, it’s about the writing and recording of Hallelujah. The conventional history is that it was written by Leonard Cohen, then made famous by Jeff Buckley, before suffering death by a thousand piss-weak cover versions. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. It’s a great story, and Gladwell tells it with a passion and sincerity that’s almost as uplifting as the song itself. Of course, he also tries to tack on an unconvincing theory of art involving Cezanne and Picasso which only confirms that the guy’s a better storyteller than theorist. On balance.

5 More Malcolm Gladwell Podcast Appearances

1) The Bill Simmons Podcast – My gran used to watch A Question of Sport even though she had no idea what they were talking about. “They just seem to be having such a nice time!” Perhaps you’ll feel the same way when Gladwell makes an appearance on this fine US sports podcast.

2) Broken Record – This new venture with Rick Rubin about the history of significant hip-hop tracks started with a surprisingly dull interview with Eminem. It’s probably going to get better.

3) Conversations with Tyler – Two very pleasant men having a very pleasant chat about Gladwell’s life and work. Pleasant.

4) National Public Radio – NPR is a bottomless well of quality talk radio. If you want, you can start off with Gladwell talking about decision-making.

5) Audible – If you’re really jonesing for some more Malcolm Gladwell, you could spend seven hours in his company while he reads one of his audiobooks.