Malcolm Gladwell is the first to acknowledge that his new book, Talking to Strangers, bears the influence of his podcast Revisionist History. Like the podcast, the book examines past events from a new perspective, in an attempt to explain how and why those events have been misunderstood.
But the resemblance goes deeper than that. In reading Talking to Strangers, one might notice its chapters are often constructed like episodes of Revisionist History: guided by Gladwell’s narration, punctuated by interviews and extended sound bites, and written with a more direct, intimate style than your typical work of nonfiction. So when it came time to produce Talking to Strangers’ audiobook, Gladwell knew that the usual approach — having someone simply read the text of the book — wouldn’t suffice.
“The minute I did my first season of Revisionist History, one of my first thoughts was, in my next book, I need to do the audiobook like the podcast,” the author tells EW. “It struck me as crazy that you would write this book and then you would just read it into a microphone, and that would be called an audiobook.”
The Talking to Strangers audiobook is essentially a super-sized podcast episode, with excerpts from Gladwell’s recorded interviews, archival audio, conversations re-created by actors, and even music. One of the book’s central chapters examines the events leading up to the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found hanged in her jail cell after being arrested during a traffic stop in 2015. Audiobook listeners will hear quotes from Bland’s inspirational YouTube videos, portions of Bland’s tense encounter with Brian Encinia, the arresting officer, and audio from Encinia’s deposition after Bland’s death.
“I thought, if Sandra Bland is doing a YouTube video saying, ‘My beautiful kings and queens,’ let’s hear Sandra Bland,” Gladwell says. “If she’s arguing with Brian Encinia, let’s hear them. Why would I describe it to you when I had the tape?”
Gladwell’s team even licensed “Hell You Talmbout,” Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest song about police brutality and racial violence (which invokes Bland’s name, among many others), for use in the audiobook. “It just changes the emotional tenor of the book when you have this incredibly haunting piece of music attached to it,” the author says.
That emotional impact is precisely what Gladwell hoped to achieve with this unique approach. Another chapter looks at the infamous “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by U.S. intelligence agencies during the war on terror, and features interviews with a CIA interrogator. “It’s way different when you can hear his voice,” Gladwell says. “You get an insight into the psychology of those guys when you can hear how they talk about it.”
Gladwell also hopes this experiment pushes audiobooks, and books themselves, forward. Pushkin Industries, Gladwell’s podcasting company (which produces Revisionist History), plans to produce similar projects in the future. (“Anyone out there who wants to do a cool one, hit me up,” Gladwell says.) And the author is fully aware of modern audiences’ consumption habits: “When I talk to a parent of teenagers, I hear over and over again about how that generation consumes stuff with their ears, not with their eyes. And if that’s the case, then we would be foolish not to give them something of high quality.”
He adds, “If you’re writing a book or writing an audiobook, you’re competing with podcasts, with talk radio, with all these other things. You better be able to measure up if you’re competing in that space. There’s just no reason to read a book into a microphone and call it a day.”
Talking to Strangers is on sale now.
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