Feature

Book of the week: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell's new book “teaches little of general import,” but readers will meet many colorful characters.

(Little, Brown, $29)

Malcolm Gladwell is starting to talk down to us, said Craig Seligman in Bloomberg.com. In his popular previous books The Tipping Point and Outliers, this star New Yorker writer did no such thing: He translated surprising findings of social science into useful advice and flattered readers’ intelligence along the way. But his latest has a new tone, and it “really bugged me.” Perhaps anyone would sound patronizing while making this book’s main argument: that underdogs sometimes win, occasionally because of ostensible disadvantages. But that raises a bigger problem: “Reading David and Goliath is to suffer the discomfort of watching a formidably intelligent author flailing—by citing all manner of studies and battering us with charts and tables—to prove something that no one would disagree with in the first place.”

Gladwell actually proves very little here, said Christopher F. Chabris in The Wall Street Journal. Early on, he argues that superlawyer David Boies became the success he is because, like various CEOs and entrepreneurs, he struggled as a child with dyslexia and overcame it. But how can anyone, even Boies, be sure that some other factor wasn’t more critical to his professional rise? And when Gladwell mentions later that prisons hold a disproportionate number of dyslexics, how can he blithely propose that society enjoys a net benefit from the disorder because of its catalytic effect on high achievers like Boies? “None of this is to say that Gladwell has lost his gift for telling stories”: Readers will meet many colorful characters and absorb many interesting facts about the Battle of Britain, cancer medicine, and crime in 21st-century Brooklyn. Still, the book as a whole “teaches little of general import.”

Maybe feel-good fictions should be all we can expect from a writer who’s become “a Goliath kind of guy,” said Keith Staskiewicz in Entertainment Weekly. Gladwell commands huge speaking fees at business events these days, and “a strong streak of corporatist can-do-ism” runs through his work.That’s why pointing out this book’s flaws isn’t simply a matter of literary criticism, said Archie Bland in The Independent (U.K.). Gladwell’s books have enormous influence in elite circles, yet the stories he’s now telling us “impose a narrative logic on the world that isn’t really there.” When tales of underdog triumph strengthen the cause of those working to tear up society’s safety net, “it’s perhaps time to think a little harder.”

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