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Smaller can be better

Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers author returns with his bestselling tricks

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Malcolm Gladwell is not a biblical scholar. Nor is he a professional educator, an oncologist, a psychologist, a military historian or a political scientist.

The New York-based Canadian author and journalist is much more simply and modestly a writer of non-fiction. A good writer. A focused writer. A prolific writer. A writer who knows exactly what he is good at. But hardly a great writer.

Despite his lack of any training whatsoever in these disparate fields, his new book, David and Goliath, features Gladwell's now-standard pattern of eagerly dabbling in all them and more.

As usual, he seems to begin with a personal fascination for particular details of cutting-edge research in several areas. Next he imagines that his cherry-picked observations can be connected.

Then he attempts to whip these eclectic, seemingly unrelated bits into frantic conclusions, assembling large-scale axioms that explain huge waves of human behaviour. It's a trick this pony has executed many times.

But Gladwell is not simply determinedly sporadic. Make no mistake: there is definitely an overarching, sustained thesis to David and Goliath.

It is something along these lines: what we instinctively label as disadvantages are frequently, in fact, cloaked advantages. And vice versa.

So, he does try to craft all those scattered poachings from so many disciplines into a compelling, unified read with a beginning, a middle and an end.

The book thus does succeed in being fascinating -- there can be no question about that. But it still does not emerge as a polished, completed work of rigorous, thoughtful prose.

Gladwell, born in England and raised in small-town southern Ontario, has been a staff writer at the prestigious New Yorker magazine for almost 20 years. David and Goliath is his fifth book.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was first in 2000. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking arrived five years later and Outliers: The Story of Success came next in 2008. Most recently, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, a collection of his New Yorker pieces, splashed in 2009.

In all these huge bestsellers, Gladwell is nothing if not consistent. What he does -- over and over and over -- is selectively access expertise in a particular field (anything is eligible, from intelligence analysis to military theory).

He applies that expertise to an unexpected topic (again, anything is possible, from the dominance of a particular ketchup brand to Bernie Goetz).

He uses those unconventional examples at once to distil that expertise and to broaden its applications radically. To do this, he incessantly introduces his readers to real people they've never (or barely) heard of and shows how their individual stories surprisingly exemplify the general expert theory in question.

This time, after an introductory chapter about the "realities" of the famous David and Goliath story, the book presents nine chapters, falling into three parts.

In the first part, Gladwell offers his most overt engagement of his thesis. Here he outlines our misconceptions of advantage and disadvantage. His data: unconventional strategies of how to play basketball (defend the whole court!); myths about the relative value of classroom sizes (smaller might not be better!); and the conundrums of young, promising academics deciding on what university to attend (better to be a big fish in a small pond!).

Winnipeggers who attended his 2012 lecture here to a business convention got a taste of some of this.

In the second part, "the theory of desirable difficulty," Gladwell ups the ante and pursues the question of whether some putative disadvantages can in fact become advantages.

His data here: over-achieving dyslexics; a child leukemia expert whose seemingly demonic yet spectacularly successful treatments were spawned (Gladwell thinks) of his own troubled childhood; and the "tricksters" of the civil rights movement who deceived their way into getting their enemy to publicize the civil rights cause ironically.

In the third and final part, he stretches even further. The gist is that history shows that too much traditional power is easily undermined by the grim resolve of the lowly.

The last group of data: "the Troubles" of Northern Ireland since the 1960s; overly punitive legal systems such as California's 1994 three-strikes law; and Huguenot resistance to the capitulations of the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France.

In that penultimate chapter, Gladwell dwells significantly on the 1984 slaying of Winnipeg teen Candace Derksen.

There, he is unable to resist aligning his old Ontario Mennonite sympathies with the shockingly forgiving reaction of Derksen's mother. (Gladwell's sister-in-law is a Mennonite originally from Winkler, a biographical detail he does not mention here.)

He ends up awkwardly concluding on a preachy note about a theology of non-violence.

In any case, the book is just that much of an engrossing whirlwind.

Throughout, we get anecdote after anecdote trotted out in service of Gladwell's admittedly amateur take on these various expert theories. It succeeds in the sense that it fashions an irresistible, lingering page-turner.

It fails in that the cracks in his argument gleam loudly. That the book is missing a proper concluding chapter is hardly surprising. He's already stuck his neck way out time and again.

To pull it all together into a encompassing grand theory at the end would be to hand the axe right over to the reader. There is no need for him to risk it all.

So, David and Goliath is predictably just Gladwell 5.0. He's certainly onto something that we apparently crave. He continues to write gripping books on interesting topics.

Along the way, he convinces in isolated moments but, at the end of the day, he never quite lands the big stick.

 

Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion & culture and classics at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 10:45 AM CDT: Fixes to say his sister-in-law is from Winkler, not Winnipeg.

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