Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” is heartening and gratifying in a general sense, rather than incredibly or specifically edifying. Still, it’s very good, largely due to Gladwell being an accomplished teller of interesting tales rather than a purveyor of startling new theories backed with uniquely, creatively crunched, extensively and exhaustively gathered data. Sure, the hockey player birthday patterns are a bit of an eye-opener, but the snippets of data and trends are not what end up captivating in this book.
Coincidences of birth and being in the right place at the right time might give gifted people an initial and sometimes extraordinary headstart in professional sports, business and industry, arts and popular culture and other walks of life. However, Gladwell contends that those fortuitous elements alone don’t automatically create a Bill Gates, a Lennon and McCartney, a John D. Rockefeller, a Carlos Slim and so on. A seeming outlier or someone representing by the dictionary definition “an extreme deviation from the mean” in their field of expertise can only become so through hard, hard, ongoing work – at least 10,000 hours of it. (Yes, Gladwell posits the pure embodiment of the old joke, “Pardon me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”)
But it isn’t just “practice, practice, practice” that completes the formula. Where Gladwell’s book shines and inspires is in its tributes to the sheer, unalloyed passion of the so-called outliers for their so-called work. They were all having so much fun pursuing their love of computer programming or playing the guitar or whatever that the 10,000 plus hours to master their respective crafts probably just flew by, and all of a sudden they were Microsoft and the Beatles and so on.
Gladwell’s forays into cultural aspects that feed into failure or success seem like a distraction from his main thesis, however fascinating. (In fact, the discussion of cultural differences affecting how airplanes pilots do or do not communicate with each other – and the consequences – is riveting.) When Gladwell concludes the book with the heartfelt recounting of his own mother’s story of hard work capitalizing on the particular opportunities that came her family’s way, the real if not intended message of the book emerges. Anyone can be the outlier or the presumed deviation of the norm, by seizing and making the most of the opportunities presented him or her … and everyone can be an outlier if we all work as a society to ensure everyone has opportunities.
I enjoyed – yes, genuinely enjoyed reading this book much, much more than I’d anticipated. I’ve always admired Linden MacIntyre as a journalist and assumed he would have an ideally balanced perspective, of both compassion and acuity, for such controversial subject matter as the sexual abuse scandals associated with the Catholic church. That admiration and confidence in the author’s vision still didn’t give me the stomach, though, for a story so closely ripped from the headlines, with the news of more allegations against another Catholic priest hitting right around the time “The Bishop’s Man” was longlisted, then shortlisted for the coveted Giller Prize. Long past the time that the book won the prize, I’ve finally read it, and am glad I did.
The voice of Father Duncan MacAskill is dry at first, blandly and reticently stating the facts of his acknowledged work within the Catholic church, among parishes in the Maritimes, as something of a fixer for the bishop. His more benign moniker is “The Bishop’s Man”, but many of his fellow priests refer to him as the “Exorcist” for his behind-the-scenes work defusing situations and relocating men of the cloth who have strayed into various forms of scandal. He questions his role and his own faith as the job entails not only covering up unsavoury situations, but also increasingly includes running interference with communities, families, the police and media.
Father MacAskill’s words and observations may be spare at first, but they are not unaffecting. As he joins a new parish close to his birthplace and slowly establishes new connections and re-establishes dormant family connections, his is not the voice of someone who doesn’t care, but that of someone who has cared much too much and is shell shocked by what he has seen and experienced. As he gets thrust more and more reluctantly into situations that test his conscience, he learns harshly that things are not what they seem, in what unfolds dramatically before him in the present, but also in pivotal chapters of his own past life.
In the end, the bishop’s man realizes with some relief and humility that he is just a man, but also beholden to neither the bishop and what the bishop represents, nor to anyone else. That realization leaves much unknown for MacAskill at the end of the book, but leaves the reader glad to have seen him along his journey.
Intriguing premise, but it meanders in some places, is overwrought or heavy-handed in others, and doesn’t really satisfy in the end, methinks. However, there are sufficient flashes of brilliance that I might seek this first-time novelist out again.