At home among the underdogs

Simplifier of complexity

Author Malcolm Gladwell once again dispenses unconventional wisdom in his latest book. Janet Maslin filed this review for The New York Times

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)

The world becomes less complicated with a Malcolm Gladwell book in hand. Mr Gladwell raises questions — should David have won his fight with Goliath? — that are reassuringly clear even before they are answered. His answers are just tricky enough to suggest that the reader has learned something, regardless of whether that’s true.

A recent posting on Goodreads, a Web site that bolsters enthusiasm for books and reveals no-baloney reasons readers like them, lauds the power of Mr Gladwell’s entertaining insights into the not quite obvious. Do you really want to be surprised all the time?’ a commenter identified as Dr A. Taubman asked this week about Mr Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath. "The world is disconcerting enough already."

As Mr Gladwell specifies, David and Goliath sets out to explore two — just two — ideas. The first is that there is greatness and beauty in David-Goliath fights, at least when the underdog wins. The second is that "we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong" by failing to realize that giants have weaknesses, and that underdogs can accomplish the unexpected. If David and Goliath were a more serious book, it would have to apply that thought to terrorism. But, as Dr Taubman implies, Mr Gladwell is not in the business of providing disturbing information.

Instead, his emphases are on uplift and novelty. So he analyses the David-Goliath bout, comparing the effects of slingshots to those of sword and spear. He lauds David’s little-guy manoeuvrability. And he suggests that Goliath, like scientifically studied giants, might have had acromegaly, a growth disorder that would have meant a pituitary tumour, which could have created vision problems, which might explain why Goliath had an attendant to lead him. Maybe that led him to misjudge David’s power. Maybe the Israelites watched from a distorting vantage point that made Goliath look excessively big, David excessively puny. Do we see the relevance of these thoughts to our daily lives?

Not yet? Then consider the title of this three-part book’s first section: The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages).

This turns out to be much more blunt than it sounds. During the course of a multipart, one-note argument, Mr Gladwell demonstrates that short teenage girls playing basketball and a schoolteacher with a 29-student classroom could make seemingly adverse circumstances work to their advantages. The girls learned to dominate the courts on which they played. And the teacher liked the variety of that seemingly overcrowded classroom, which may stir up an argument among the polite elite most likely to read Mr Gladwell: the contrast between seemingly elite prep schools and colleges and more downscale ones in which students may be likelier to excel.

His advice: Ignore school ratings. Be a big fish in a small pond. Who wants to be a guppy at Harvard?

As usual, Mr Gladwell’s science is convenient. He has charts to back up his premise about academic success, but how is success measured? In happiness? Salary? Getting jobs, or keeping them? Read the annotations if you must, but they won’t get you far. Mr. Gladwell needs a David-Goliath school story, so he creates one. His version happens to have common sense on its side, even if it is in no way definitive or complete.

The book’s middle section is its messiest...

Full review in The New York Times:

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Interview with Malcolm Gladwell:

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