I listened to Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Headlam’s new five-hour audiobook Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It fascinated, entertained, and touched me — even though it had a little more Gladwell in it than we really needed.
This is an audiobook unlike any other
If you’re interested in “Miracle and Wonder,” you need to know what you’re getting — because this is not like any audiobook you’ve ever listened to before.
An audiobook is a spoken version of the text in a book. The narrator may be the author or a voice actor or actors. But high-end audiobooks are moving beyond simple narrations of the written text. Fiction audiobooks may include multiple voice actors, making the result more of an audio performance or radio play than an audiobook. The audiobook of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo includes a cast of 166 voice actors including Nick Offerman, Ben Stiller, and Susan Sarandon.
No matter how elaborate, though, such audiobooks are still a dramatic presentation of the text in the book.
Miracle and Wonder, by contrast, does not even have an accompanying print book or ebook. When you listen to it, you’ll understand why.
This “audiobook” is made from many hours of interviews of Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell and his coauthor Bruce Headlam. The listening experience includes Gladwell and Headlam reading their own content, but much of it is Simon answering questions and explaining his ideas and process, often including him singing and playing the guitar.
The audio experience also includes spoken interviews with Simon’s longtime sound engineer Roy Halee; musicians he’s collaborated with including Herbie Hancock and African musicians from “Graceland”; and commentary from other musicians like Sting and Rosanne Cash. There is also archival audio from news programs and Simon’s appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show.” (Unsurprisingly, given the challenging relationship that Simon has with his former recording partner, there is no audio from Art Garfunkel.)
And there is music, lots of music. This includes both recorded and live performances by Simon alone and with Art Garfunkel, as well as music that influenced Simon, like gospel and doo-wop tunes and South African township jive. The music appears in the context of the story that Gladwell and Headlam are telling about Simon and his creative growth.
I spoke with audio industry expert Tom Webster, a senior VP at Edison Research, about where this production fits in the audio universe. He pointed out that audio productions featuring music and archival sound have been common for decades, in radio programs and now, podcasts. The difference is that those productions were free and ad-supported, while Miracle and Wonder, at a $22.40 list price (or one $14.95 monthly credit from Audible), provides direct revenue to Gladwell’s audiobook company, Pushkin Industries.
As Tom told me, this choice “creates a scarcity that preserves the value of the audiobook.” Why can Gladwell do this? As Tom pointed out, there are two reasons: Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Simon. This is a unique, highly produced piece of work with a lot of resonance for millions of people — and therefore a candidate to actually generate direct sales.
Gladwell seeks the source of Paul Simon’s creativity
Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam did not set out to create a biography of Paul Simon. There are already several, including the excellent Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn. Miracle and Wonder is, as described by Gladwell, a “musical biography,” an exploration of the sources of Simon’s music and his creativity.
Gladwell is intent in exploring where genius comes from — and Paul Simon’s genius in particular. Malcolm Gladwell’s career in writing is one of exploring puzzles. Why is the secret of success (Outliers)? How do ideas spread (The Tipping Point)? How do underdogs beat massive favorites (David and Goliath)?
From this perspective, Gladwell and Headlam set out to “solve” Paul Simon — to determine what drives him, where his inspiration comes from, and what has allowed him to pursue his genius so productively for such a long career. Chapter One is called “The Mystery.” As Gladwell says, “That word, genius, doesn’t tell you anything, does it? It’s a label, not a description.” So Gladwell’s question is, “How did he do it, and what can we learn from how he did it?”
Gladwell immediately follows this question with “Of course, he wasn’t just going to tell us.” After all, a Malcolm Gladwell project must involve a mystery of sufficient magnitude to engage his prodigious writer’s intellect.
It is fortunate that Gladwell has the question of the source of Simon’s genius to drive him, because he uses it to delve into everything about Paul Simon’s music. We hear of Simon’s fondness for the street corner singing groups in Queens, from so many overlapping ethnic and musical traditions, that tickled his young ears and imagination. We hear gospel records and New Orleans jazz and eventually reggae and South African township jive and Cameroonian drum rhythms and Brian Eno electro-pop and all the other sounds that go into the Paul Simon’s protean mental music creation machine and resonate back to create an opus without peer in American pop music.
Consider the song “Take me to the Mardi Gras,” which combines a gospel falsetto from the the Reverend Claude Jeter, Muscle Shoals Alabama R&B session musicians, a Jamaican reggae guitar, and a New Orleans brass band, all grooving along with melodies and lyrics from Simon’s own musical wellspring.
When Gladwell asks Simon about whether he is investigating other cultures’ musical traditions to invigorate and shake up his own, Simon corrects him. “I’m not investigating a musical tradition, I’m talking to an artist I really admire and respect,” he explains. “I felt a little sense of awe. I don’t go to shake up, I go to where I’m interested in.”
Gladwell calls this “the gift of Queens,” because in Queens is where Simon first connected with such a variety of musical styles.
Here’s the truth about Gladwell’s question: in the end, I just don’t care. I don’t care where it comes from. I care how it comes about, for sure, but I have no interest in solving Paul Simon. And if you listen carefully to Simon talking, you can tell he doesn’t care either.
He cares about sound.
When he hears a sound that interests him, it burrows into his brain. He seeks out the musicians who make it and connects with them, and that sounds becomes part of his idiom. What drives him is not politics, nor is it some unusual creative blending impulse, Gladwell’s “gift of Queens.” It is, simply and most basically, sound. Harmony. Rhythm. Emotion. Joy, sorrow, love, the human condition. Honesty, tempered with a little tenderness. People seeking connection; Simon seeking new ways to find music that resonates with our souls.
Regardless of what drives it, this is a journey worth taking
It’s not the destination of this audio experience that I connected with, it’s the stops along the way.
I was captivated to hear how the engineer Roy Halee took the young Simon and Garfunkel under his wing, finding the sounds that would allow their harmonies to reach the mainstream — and how, to this day, Halee continues to work with Simon to explore new sounds.
It was fascinating to hear how central Simon’s musician father was to his love for music — and how he dealt with his father’s cancer diagnosis in lyrics on “The Cool, Cool River” from “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
Moves like a fist through traffic
Anger and no one can heal it
Shoves a little bump into the momentum
It’s just a little lump
But you feel it
In the creases and the shadows
With a rattling deep emotion
The cool, cool river
Sweeps the wild, white ocean
He talked about how his mother said, “Paul, you have a nice voice — but Artie has a fine voice;” and how, once Simon had given “Bridge over Troubled Water” to Art Garfunkel to sing, and then Aretha Franklin covered it, he became jealous of his own creation. This led him to eventually find ways to own the whole process. That’s the driver that launched Simon’s solo career.
I was transfixed hearing Gladwell describe the political situation in apartheid South Africa and how it collided with Simon’s desire to work with local musicians. He defied calls to boycott and embraced musicians unknown outside South Africa, building the “Graceland” album together and then getting them on “Saturday Night Live” and going on tour with them. He made careers take off for desperately poor, wildly talented musicians, and then suffered an enormously painful backlash that, even in the retelling, clearly continues to cause him anguish.
For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, parts of this audio experience brought me to tears. I choked up as I heard Sting talk about “America,” from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” and listened to that song still lodged in my emotional center from an album that I played over and over again as a teenager 50 years ago. When Rosanne Cash talked about how her two-year-old granddaughter was mesmerized as, over and over again, they listened to the chords of “The Only Living Boy in New York,” I felt it again. And I felt it again, deeply, as Gladwell closed the audiobook with “American Tune,” written in the 70s in the midst of Vietnam tearing the country apart. Nearly 40-plus years on, “American Tune” reaches deep into our hearts as we mourn the America we still believe in, but that somehow is falling apart.
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong
Gladwell’s nattering about theories of genius while random and irrelevant instrumental music tinkles in the background grated on my nerves. His smug dismantling of Simon’s intellect wasn’t just irrelevant noise. I’m convinced that Gladwell was trying to deconstruct Simon’s decades of unending creativity to understand his own.
The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and Outliers (2008) captivated the nonfiction world, creating compelling narratives that seemed to reveal fundamental truths about the world. For the decade of the 2000s, Gladwell was arguably one of the most creative nonfiction writers in the English-speaking world, especially for books about ideas. But his popularity hasn’t held up. As Andrew Ferguson wrote in The Atlantic in reviewing the muddled Talking to Strangers, “nearly 20 years after The Tipping Point, his best-selling debut, the Gladwell formula is at last exhausted.”
Like all artists, musicians, and writers, Malcolm Gladwell wants to believe that his creativity will continue to move in new and interesting directions, just as Paul Simon’s has. This new art form — the audiobook cum audio documentary — is one way he has of showing that he’s not tapped out. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the theme of Miracle and Wonder is of creativity continuing to branch out in every possible direction, a theme that is personal for every artist, including Malcolm Gladwell. The irony is that Gladwell’s concept for this piece of work has created something wonderful, but his own narration within it is the least compelling part.
In the end, this audiobook — or whatever it is — is well worth listening to. If Paul Simon is the soundtrack of any of your life, as he is for mine, you will find the emotional and intellectual experience of Miracle and Wonder worth taking. It is likely to be one of the most rewarding audiobook experiences you’ll ever have.
Get caught up in the answers Paul Simon gives and how the authors have woven them together to form a moving story of a songwriter and the world he immerses himself in. Leave the intellectual musings aside. Indulge in the storytellling. It’s worth a few hours of your time.