Is there more to Malcolm Gladwell’s hit podcast series than meets the ears?
Celebrated, five-time-best-selling, stick-it-to-the-big-guy, examine-the-simple-things-in-life author Malcolm Gladwell has leapt onto the podcast bandwagon. Following Lena Dunham, Shaquille O’Neal, Dr. Drew and a legion of other celebrities into the latest media craze, Malcom Gladwell has recently wrapped up Revisionist History, a ten-part series that takes another peek at “the overlooked and the misunderstood.”
All in the 30–45 minute range, episodes take a magnifying glass to a vast array of topics, from runaway vehicles to Leonard Cohen’s musical classical Hallelujah. The series is certainly wide ranging — I’m not sure whom I’d say this podcast is made for. Students of history? Check. Advocates for poor kids? Check. Fans of Steven Colbert? Check. There’s something for everyone here.
In the series opener, “The Lady Vanishes”, Gladwell tells the story of Elizabeth Thompson Butler, a 19th-Century English painter, who invaded the art scene of her time, attracting attention that Gladwell equates to modern-day Beyonce hysteria. And then she disappears; never to receive the sustained acclaim Gladwell feels she deserves. Drawing a comparison to Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia, he calls attention to countries that broke the glass ceiling and elected a female leader — once. What is it, Gladwell asks, about societies that feel they’ve checked the diversity box by electing a token woman and therefore don’t feel the need to break the mold again?
And then take “The Blame Game”, in which Gladwell takes another look at Toyota’s famed scandal of self-accelerating cars, which resulted in an international recall, a congressional investigation and spiraling profits for the car giant. This is maybe one of the few episodes that accurately aligns with Gladwell’s description of his own pod — another look at something history has defined in a certain way. But more on that later.
I don’t want to give too much away about “Blame Game” because for me, it included a genuine twist in the plot that caused an audible gasp to escape my lips. Not often does a story serve up genuine surprise these days, and I highly recommend it.
I will say that the episode enthralled me so much that I bugged my husband to listen to it with infuriating frequency. When he took a long drive to his hometown without me, I insisted he listen to “Blame Game” and report back to me immediately. I forgot to factor in that we both drive Toyotas, hence causing my dearly beloved a tense, white-knuckle, three-hour drive to Yuma, Arizona, during which he was convinced he was about to meet an untimely end at the hands of his self-accelerating vehicle.
In the middle of Gladwell’s short series lies an even shorter three-part series of episodes that focus on the state of America’s education system. Spoiler alert: Gladwell doesn’t rate it ten out of ten.
Tapping into an issue that clearly causes Gladwell’s creative juices to flow and his blood to boil, these three episodes are where he is at his most passionate. At one point in “My Little Hundred Million”, which investigates generous philanthropic giving to the nation’s top universities, Gladwell, with audible despair, commentates a fascinating interview with head of Stanford, John Hennessey, about his philosophy of always wanting more money for his university, no matter how ridiculous Gladwell’s hypothetically proposed scenarios get. It’s worth a listen to see which man you think makes the most convincing argument.
Something bugged me about Revisionist History from the very first episode, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. At first I thought it was because I couldn’t tell where each story was going. Yet, as the first episodes began to unravel, I learned that it was more the need to know where a tale is headed before I trust myself to it completely. (Side bar — I suspect this is why I don’t love television; you give yourself up to the storyteller at a point when they have no idea how it all ends or even how many seasons they are going to get).
As familiarity with Gladwell’s format allowed me to trust it more, I began to really enjoy listening to Revisionist History. And yet, something still bugged me. And so I listened and listened. Still nothing. As each episode passed I still couldn’t see why — while I really, really liked it — I couldn’t love it.
And then after listening to the final episode, which highlights the role political satire plays in us common folks’ understanding of the subjects it mocks, it hit me. Revisionist History isn’t really revisionist history at all; it’s a series of audio opinion editorials in which Gladwell tells a story to demonstrate an opinion about the world and the humans that inhabit it.
Don’t get me wrong — the stories are excellent. I highly recommend Revisionist History. It will have you simultaneously gasping, giggling and googling. But, rather than applying journalistic-style analysis of both sides of a picture, Gladwell mounts an argument — stacked with one-sided points and emotion — and pulls you into his way of thinking.
Gladwell revealed in a recent interview that the aspect he loves most about podcasts is the ability to move people emotionally with the spoken word. And does he ever! Revisionist History is a collection of ten beautifully told opinion essays that will get you thinking. What Revisionist History isn’t is an objective reassessment of things that happened in the past — as the name may suggest.