It feels sometimes as if no corporate presentation is truly complete without a quote from a public intellectual along the lines of Malcolm Tipping Point Gladwell or Thomas Hot, Flat, and Crowded Friedman, preferably something pithy about how the world really "works."
Globalization flattened everything. Snap judgments are best. The only sure sign of a genius is earwax accumulation. I kid on that last one, but insert it in a slideshow and everyone in the meeting will nod along, humming agreement, as if it were a nugget of ages-old wisdom.
Those nonfiction books that purport to explain life, the universe, and everything will occasionally rocket to the top of the bestseller lists and stick there for months, like a wine stain that won't scrub from the carpet. (The secret to such books' longevity on those lists: they make safe and affordable gifts for the not-quite-so-loved ones on your list, like your boss or father-in-law.)
The books win awards, and more people read them by the week, and soon their pearls of easy-to-digest wisdom trickle into PowerPoint files and memos and email signatures across the country. The book's author starts charging tens of thousands of dollars per lecture and, thanks to royalties, can finally afford that beach shack in Aruba.
Then the parodies crop up online. For weeks I enjoyed sending friends the link to The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator, which created fake titles along the lines of Sizzle: Why Some Ideas Pop While Others Merely Crackle, or Yoga: How Trends Make People Buy Books.
As the (actual) books reach their saturation point, with at least a dozen copies visible per bus or subway car, people will groan loudly at the mention of their titles or authors. This means you can no longer cite those texts without being perceived as a trend-chaser, someone who pulls a theory from The Tipping Point because everybody else is doing it. And as you learned in elementary school, "everybody else is doing it" is not a viable excuse for anything. The intellectual aspires to quote from lesser-known works, hinting at a depth of knowledge beyond what you find on the racks of an airport book kiosk.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
Indeed, referencing the more unknown authors not only boosts your intellectual credentials: it can mark one as a trendsetter. As a bonus, it allows you to avoid any groaning from colleagues when you send the billionth-and-first quarterly memo quoting liberally from the latest pop sociology text. Best of all, those more esoteric sources are easy to find: A quick online search within a selected field -- psychology, say, or macroeconomics -- will result in a host of books you can use for inspiration.
This maxim also applies to fiction bestsellers: once a novel has perched atop the charts for months, referring to it inevitably makes your own work feel a little derivative. For quite a long time, it seemed practically federal law that everyone tote a copy of Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, meaning in turn that every parody and homage of that Swedish thriller seemed old long before the film adaptations hit theaters. Aspire to quote from obscure works.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
As with action movies (and so many other elements of popular culture), fiction and nonfiction bestsellers gain added credibility with time: if enough years pass, and people continue to read a particular book, and the author's ideas haven't been soundly debunked by subsequent writers, then you can quote from them without fear of others perceiving you as a follower.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.
Follow Nick Kolakowski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nkolakowski