Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

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6 Comments

  1. Susan

     /  June 13, 2018

    Thank you for this thoughtful, important post. You have ‘unpacked’, in my opinion, the essence of a very critical problem in schooling specifically and society at large – the unwillingness to do the hard but incredibly gratifying work of reading and thinking through one’s own perspective. As a teacher, retired from schools and working in another capacity in education, the ‘unwillingness’ has deeper roots. One of those deep roots is the lack of opportunity, space, and the emotional safety to speak one’s thoughts in the classroom, “to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action”. I suspect you are in a minority.

    The lack of opportunity, space and safety in schools to consider and speak on one’s own terms leaves children and youth vulnerable to being controlled by others. So the idea of this book club would be very appealing for many – someone else has done the thinking for me, I do not have to reveal myself nor do I have to do the hard work of organizing my thinking into words and then supporting my thinking. Besides, I do not have the skills to do this.

    The ‘action’ piece in the book club ‘hits the mark’ in a society that values action over thinking. This is a source of deep sadness for me. Along with the points you and Ms. Schulz make, there is the issue of brain development, specifically in the area of action before/instead of thinking. Neuroscience has revealed that the mature brain thinks before it acts more often than it acts before it thinks. Our brains reach this level of maturity between 20-24 years old. However, the brain does not mature automatically. It requires from our early years a model, for most of us some instruction, for all of us practice with ongoing feedback contextualized in multiple opportunities – reading and suspending summary and action being one of those contexts.

    Thank you again.
    Susan

    Reply
    • Thank you, Susan, for everything that you said in this comment. When reading it, I realized that I had been seeing “book summaries” even in book form. I don’t know when this trend began, but often when a bestselling book in the social sciences is published, someone else comes along with a book or booklet that lists and the key points of the first and translates them into simple language. I enjoy and learn from companion books, such as concordances, annotated editions, and so forth: reference works that give insight into a book’s details or structure. But summaries pull in the opposite direction: away from the details of the text, away from the difficulties and ambiguities, and toward some kind of takeaway.

      Reply
  2. oddodddodo

     /  August 9, 2018

    I’ll share a little story. I had not heard of the Next Big Idea Club until the publicist for the book I have co-written (“The Book of Why,” you’re welcome to look it up) informed my co-author and me with considerable excitement that our book was a finalist for this summer’s list. (There are six finalists and two are chosen.) At first I was pretty skeptical but then I saw that Malcolm Gladwell and Susan Cain were involved and I thought, “Okay, the premise seems a little bit over the top, but I’m glad to be in the cool kids’ club.”

    Your post puts a finger directly on the things about the N.B.I.C. that I was ambivalent about. I think we *do* have some big ideas in our book, but the idea that they should be “actionable” is slightly alarming. I’m worried about people misappropriating them, leaping to embrace them as the latest fad without thinking about their substance. I would be much happier if people said ten years from now that our book was a turning point in how they think about cause and effect. But two months after publication, who can tell? Actual “big ideas” take time.

    To end the story: We didn’t get chosen. And it’s actually a bit of a relief. I don’t want to take anything away from Gladwell and Cain; I think that their hearts are in the right place and I admire them for trying to put good readers together with good literature. But I never fit in with the cool kids’ club anyway; I’m glad to be an outsider looking in.

    Reply
    • Thank you for this story! I am eager to read your book; I ordered it just now. From your comment here and from the short excerpt that I read, it seems that the book will provoke many thoughts and questions while also informing me of the Causal Revolution, about which I would say, quoting Tom Lehrer, “This I know from nothing.” Already I am thinking about a “mathematical language of causation” and look forward to more.

      Reply
  3. oddodddodo

     /  August 9, 2018

    Thanks, Diana. I’ve just pre-ordered your book on Amazon, too. Judging from what I’ve seen on your blog, I’m sure to like it. Good luck! – DM

    Reply
  1. My Year with The Next Big Idea Club | Josephine Elia

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