Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell – The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery

Adam Gopnick and Malcolm Gladwell are not only peers, they’re friends. Watching these two wry intellects converse is like taking a back seat at the Algonquin Round Table. This evening’s event at the 92Y centers on Gopnick’s latest book The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.

“For years a successful critic, I realized one misses the whole if there’s no attempt to guess what the real work feels like for others,” Gopnick begins referring particularly to the work about which he writes.  In the book, the author uses one of his favorite subjects, magicians, as an example. “… real work means the accumulated craft, savvy, and technical mystery that makes a great magic trick great…” His definition of mastery is doing things that seem impossible but can be accomplished, like reading. Our society, Gopnik suggests, pushes kids to achieve the ephemeral – pass the test, not the enduring – to learn.

George Plimpton’s Paper Lion described trying out different professions. The more cerebral Gopnik concerns himself with skills rather than jobs. His volume is divided into chapters focused on Drawing  (“…drawings are made of tacit compromises between agreed-on fictions and hard sought facts.”), Making Magic, Driving (he learned with his 20 year-old son the mastery is of fear), Baking, Boxing (“I haven’t had a bout yet because they have to find another short, Jewish writer…”) and Dancing (something of a revelation).

Between above chapters, the author philosophizes on what he calls “the mystery of mastery, taking on such subjects as fear of embarrassment, what we can’t do because we’re not designed to do it, intention, and arriving at meaning. It sounds academic but somehow isn’t in reading. Even with intellect whirring, Gopnik immerses himself rather humbly and wide eyed.

“Part of this book is about mediocrity. Most of these things you’re never gonna be good at. I once saw the Bard (College) La Crosse team which was worse than anything you can imagine, but it meant anyone could join the team. Those kids didn’t know they were bad…” Gladwell comments. He decides they should “talk around” the book. Here are excerpts of Gopnik from two chapters integrated with thoughts on my reading of the book.

In Baking, the author chances upon an heirloom recipe for “Martha’s Bread.” His wife Martha is described as looking like “a woman who might have perfumes, dresses, and dances named after her, perhaps, but not oat-and-honey bread…I was jealous of men in Montreal health-food stores who had sold her millet and lecithin granules.” Baking, especially baking bread had never been on his radar. “I told myself I didn’t bake bread for the same reason I didn’t drive a car: it’s a useful skill, unnecessary in New York.” It was time to learn.

“If you’re so interested in bread baking, you should apprentice with someone who yells at you a lot and teaches you what’s what,” Martha said. Of course, his mother. “My mother’s unrolling strudel was my first experience of mastery.” In Mrs. Gopnik’s kitchen, “the experience of mastery lengthens time; by making each step fully self-conscious, we live within the moment as we otherwise rarely do….Yeast, my mother explained, is really just a bunch of bugs rooming together, like Oberlin grads in Brooklyn…The secret of bread (she said) is that bread is much more forgiving than non-bakers know.”

He writes about touch and smell, time, weight, slicing, and even greed. Mother and son bake and talk. At home, wife Martha was ready to create her namesake. “Sixty minutes in a slow oven, braided like the blonde hair of a Swedish child… It was delicious… Women, I thought, remember everything. Bread forgives us all.”

Magic, about which Gopnik is particularly enthusiastic, offers another scenario. “People come up to magicians and say ‘I know how you do that’ which is like saying to Yo Yo Ma, ‘I know you just draw the bow across your cello’…It’s a subculture… Their shop talk is the most beautiful talk there is. Writers are miserable because they have no shop talk. Magicians only talk to other magicians so they’re intense.”

Gopnik chronicles a tour of illusionist David Copperfield’s desert warehouse which contains perhaps the world’s greatest collection of magic artifacts. “He seemed needy and extremely generous…” The author’s guide is practitioner Jamy Ian Swiss, whose passions and prohibitions are to say the least, exacting. “The method is never the trick,” Gopnik quotes Swiss in the book. “Once you’ve mastered the method, you’ve hardly begun the trick.”

“Only by command of intellectual empathy can the magician lead a viewer down an explanatory highway from which there is no exit…” he writes. An audience is willingly seduced, but the performer must know how. As an uber-fan, I’ve seen the same or similar effects executed by multiple performers. Skill lies in presence, patter, context, rapport, not just technique. Practicing in front of a mirror doesn’t reflect the experience of the audience. Gopnik visits illusionist/ escape artist David Blaine whom he calls “the prophet of the new illusionism but also its subverter…” and Teller of the ubiquitous Penn and Teller – yes, he talks – whose home he calls Dr. Caligari’s remake of The Whitney Museum.

Expectations, patterns, display, perception, risk, surprise and persuasion are explored. Specific tricks are characterized. Gopnik writes about the Too Perfect theory which says any trick that simply astounds will give itself away. “If, for instance, a magician smokes a cigarette and then makes it pass through an ordinary quarter, the only reasonable explanation is that it isn’t an ordinary quarter…” The author’s son Luke is shown some card manipulation. This chapter is not about Gopnik learning a trick, but rather mastery per se.

Gladwell comments that he starts with an idea and searches for someone to dress it up, while the author falls in love and comes up with something to justify his subject. Gopnik says he “looks for commonalities.” The Real Work touches on many kinds of practice, creativity, and accomplishment. If you leave yourself open, a river runs through it. The book is articulate, entertaining, fascinating, fun; writing dense and provocative.

Opening by Vladimir Kolesnikov/Michael Priest Photography.
Left: Malcom Gladwell, Right: Adam Gopnik

Cover courtesy of the publisher

The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnick
Published by Liverlight

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Adam Gopnick has been on The New Yorker staff since 1986. His first piece for the magazine, setting precedent of approach, was a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. The author has written nine books and is working on his second musical.

Author and speaker Malcom Gladwell has been on The New Yorker staff since 1996. Many of his seven books have been on the The New York Times Best Seller List.

About Alix Cohen (1510 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.