Books | They might be giants

A review of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell.
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books) on

Malcolm Gladwell is the most commercially successful staff writer at The New Yorker -- few of his co-workers have their own bus billboards. All five of his books have been bestsellers. Earlier this month, his latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants(Little, Brown & Company, $29, excerpted here) entered The New York Times list at No. 2.

Something's awry when fewer than three riders on a metropolitan train car are thumbing through Blinkor Outliers, two of Gladwell's earlier collections. Moreover, suburban mega-stores such as Costco, Target and Walmart devote entire displays to each new addition to Gladwell's canon.

I've never met Gladwell, but through his writing and speaking, he comes across as incredibly pleasant. Perhaps he has better evolved brain chemistry than the rest of us.

With his move from TheWashington Postto The New Yorker in 1996, Gladwell was cast as a literary wonder boy, a gifted explainer, enthusiastic to find real men and women who substantiate statistics. Now 50, he still looks like a teaching assistant (he wore jeans, sneakers and a sportcoat during this recent David and Goliath-themed TED talk). Even his name has a pair of calming adjectives -- I can picture a woman in Lamaze class being instructed to inhale (hold, two, three), and exhale, "Glad-well."

The most common publishing refrain is probably "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is odd since book publishers tend to appreciate good grammar. Nevertheless, I'm tired of the Gladwell formula.

Each chapter (in each book) begins like a stump speech: X person from X town suffered X hardship.

I doubt it's an accident that the paperback version of each text totals almost exactly 280 pages before the endnotes, acknowledgements and index. The exception is 2009's What the Dog Saw (and Other Adventures), book No. 4 and my preference, an anthology of his New Yorker articles edited down to their most focused, wry selves.

The covers are almost entirely blank, save for a small central image that any adept seventh-grader could make with Microsoft Clip Art: a match, an asterisk, a marble, a sneaker and -- on David and Goliath -- a paper tear as a stand-in for David's slingshotted stone.

Immediately, confusion abounds when Gladwell repeats the oft-heard Bible story of David vs. Goliath. Gladwell tries to upend this parable with facts extrapolated from both ancient scriptures and today's medical experts. The theme: sometimes "advantages" -- such as being a towering, well-armed warrior -- are actually "disadvantages" -- David, a nimble adolescent with nothing to lose, relied on a rock and a prayer.

A more contemporary example: some of the world's most accomplished individuals harness their dyslexia.

The notion of whether the fight between David and Goliath actually happened will always be a subject of debate. Among other things, Gladwell asserts that Goliath had problems with his vision, one reason why he was easily defeated by his scrawny sparring partner.

Thus the book begins with a very large "What if..." Moving forward, Gladwell reaches and generalizes and -- although, again, he seems so kind and at times more compassionate than journalistic -- the tone is a tad condescending, as if his words are not open to interpretation.

In last weekend's Times Sunday Book Review, Joe Nocera wrote about how Gladwell's favorite word is "we:"

The 'we' of course does not refer to Gladwell. That's the whole point of a Malcolm Gladwell book. He has delved into the literature; he has interviewed lots of people ... and he has divined meaning and found counterintuitive connections that otherwise would have eluded the rest of us.

I was not surprised at all by David and Goliath. Gladwell is a likable optimist, and I want him to amaze me as much as he promises. As lauded as he is for challenging the status quo, Gladwell's routine resembles that of any technician.

While Gladwell is by definition a writer, something about him strikes he as more of a synthesizer -- a conduit between the Ivy League and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He has job security in an insecure profession. He's made plenty of money. I'd like to see him take a risk -- write a book-length history of a much-contested law, or a memoir (his name is synonymous with his intellect, yet his college grades were too low to get him into grad school), or a psychological study about the loss of parents and children (David and Goliath is more violent and morbid than its predecessors -- Gladwell does a good job of asking uncomfortable questions before reneging and insisting that those questions aren't the ones meant to be asked).

Until then, expect much more from the sociological genre Gladwell created and perfected -- I bet you thought this was true; it isn't, and I'll tell you why.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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