Since the publication of “The Tipping Point” in 2000, New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell has become a phenomenon: His books are bestsellers and have been assigned reading for business-school courses. His typically counterintuitive arguments have drawn praise for their seductive storytelling and cognitive leaps as well as critical scorn for the over-simplification of his conclusions.
Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” shows in equal parts what’s made him so appealing to some and appalling to others. As the title indicates, he takes as his central metaphor the biblical story of David and Goliath, the Israelite shepherd boy who defeated the giant warrior of the Philistines.
With his close reading of that story, Gladwell outlines his thesis: that “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” More important, “we constantly get these kind of conflicts wrong.” That is, we misread and misinterpret: “Giants are not what we think they are.”
In the case of the biblical story, David had a clear advantage that has often been overlooked: his skill with sling and stone (the biblical era’s “artillery”), his mobility against the stationary, heavily armor-clad infantryman, and his cunning in fighting the lopsided battle on his own terms.
Gladwell follows up David and Goliath with nine modern stories divided into three sections, all dealing with various perceived strengths and weaknesses, or as the first section puts it — “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages).” In the second, he talks about the theory of “desirable difficulty.” The third covers “the limits of power.”
The individual profiles Gladwell draws in these sections demonstrate his impressive talent as reporter and portraitist. Among other things, he shows us a slow, unskilled girls’ basketball team led by an inexperienced coach who managed to defeat “better” teams through use of the full-court press. We see people for whom dyslexia proved to be an unexpected advantage. And we see the limits of power during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and in the “Three Strikes” law that sentences third-time offenders to life sentences.
Gladwell backs up these adroitly told anecdotes with evidence from academic studies and statistical surveys. As in the past, his ability to make cognitive leaps can be dazzling. When Gladwell convincingly compares a study of the survivors of the Blitz in London to the career of the path-breaking oncologist Emil “Jay” Freireich, you have to wonder: Which came first in his research, the Blitz or Freireich, or is this just a lot of stuff Gladwell happened to know about?
The stories are provocative and often very moving and emotionally nuanced. We see the “disagreeable” Freireich move from a childhood of astounding deprivation and loss into the horrors of the early years of treating childhood leukemia. We see the turning point in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala., through the eyes of a lesser-known player, Wyatt Walker. And in his dismantling of the reasoning behind the Three Strikes law, Gladwell creates affecting portraits of two sets of parents who lost children to murder.
But sometimes one chafes if not at Gladwell’s conclusions then at the tone of his reasoning. When he finds commonalities in the “advantages” of dyslexia, the Blitz, and slavery, to prove a point, he undercuts his argument by trivializing the very stories he’s told so powerfully. And Gladwell has fallen into the annoying stylistic tic of constantly asking rhetorical questions, as if he’s now writing directly to that business-school audience. Will “David and Goliath” become required reading? As Gladwell likes to say: I think you can guess the answer.Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Follow him on Twitter@jgarelick.