Malcolm Gladwell, Hometown Boy, Makes Good
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Malcolm Gladwell, Hometown Boy, Makes Good

Canadian expat writer (and sometime Torontonian) Malcolm Gladwell talked culture and heritage to a capacity crowd at the Toronto Reference Library.

Photo courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Okay, it’s a stretch to call Toronto Malcolm Gladwell’s hometown. The award-winning journalist and writer, who was interviewed by CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel before a crowd of hundreds at the Toronto Reference Library on Monday night, has ties to at least four nations: his mother is Jamaican; his father is English; he was raised and educated in Canada; and he achieved his success in the United States. His specific Toronto connection is that he attended the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, earning a history degree before succumbing to the siren call of America.

Gladwell has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1996, but he really made his name with books like The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. His particular literary strength is taking obvious ideas (the premise behind The Tipping Point can be described succinctly as “Sometimes things are going one way, then they change and go a different way!”) and repainting them with offbeat research and a story-teller’s ear for anecdotes.

Like his writing, Gladwell’s conversation is fluid, funny, and wide-ranging. Monday’s event was sponsored by Jamaica 50—an organization that is orchestrating local celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain—and so a lot of the discussion centred on Gladwell’s Jamaican/African heritage. On the topic of 18th-century race relations, he noted that unlike in the United States, in Jamaica, people of mixed-race origin were, at the time, accepted in society. This, in his view, was principally because “there was a shortage of white people. When you have a shortage of white people, the bar for whiteness gets lowered.”

Of his possibly formative years in Toronto, Gladwell had little to say except to say that he never encountered racism here, and that Trinity College was fantastically diverse when he went there in the ’80’s.

If you’re interested in hearing the whole entertaining chat, CBC Radio One will broadcast it on June 10 and again on June 12.

Video of this talk is available here, thanks to the Toronto Public Library.