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Gladwell Tells Us Stuff Only Dummies Don’t Know: Books

"David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants," by Malcolm Gladwell. Source: Little, Brown and Company via Bloomberg

Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- In “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell delves into important ideas about power and accomplishment. He contends that children faced with difficult obstacles, such as dyslexia or the loss of a parent, often develop skills that make them successes later in life.

He maintains that great force is not always enough to overcome courage and determination -- in the case, for example, of southern racists versus black civil-rights workers in the 1960s, or the British government versus Northern Irish Catholics in the 1970s.

Wait a second. Is there someone who doesn’t already know those things?

Of course not, and to read “David and Goliath” is to suffer the discomfort of watching a formidably intelligent author flailing -- by citing all manner of social-scientific studies and battering us with charts and tables and graphs -- to prove something that no one would disagree with in the first place.

But what, exactly, has he proved? That some individuals and some groups are exceptional? Oh. As he points out himself, childhood hardship isn’t anything close to a guarantor of success: “There are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison.”

French Resistance

He closes his final section, “The Limits of Power,” with a chapter on Andre Trocme, a French pastor who sheltered Jews and successfully (in that he wasn’t killed) stood up to the Nazis. Gladwell explains that his town was a Huguenot stronghold that developed its nerve over centuries of conflict with the Catholic authorities.

But that’s cherry-picking, since there were (a) many more instances of non-Huguenot resistance and (b) countless examples of courageous resistance crushed by the Nazis.

Going into any fight, the odds are on Goliath’s side. But of course he won’t win every time. Gladwell is looking for something like a general theory of courage -- a fascinating topic, but one for philosophers, not social scientists.

He’s most entertaining when he’s being counterintuitive, as when he cites studies showing that smaller classes aren’t necessarily good for school kids.

Even with credible research to point to, though, I predict he’s going to get pushback to his argument that making it into an Ivy League school is a stroke of bad luck because so many good students get discouraged in the company of better ones.

Drug Cocktail

The further I read into “David and Goliath,” the more irritated I got. I wasn’t persuaded there was much of a subject there, but what really bugged me was the tone. Consider this description of a brave doctor’s (at the time) revolutionary idea of combining two or three toxic cancer drugs into a “cocktail”:

“They each attacked cancer cells in different ways. They were like the army and the navy. Maybe the cells that survived 6-MP would be killed by methotrexate. And what if they added prednisone into the mix? It could be the air force, bombing from the air while the other drugs attacked from the land and sea.”

That’s an eye roller, but I don’t want to sound finicky about one banal metaphor. Even the finest stylists sometimes produce slack sentences, and Gladwell’s prose seldom has anything to apologize for. It’s the patronizing way in which the argument is framed, here and throughout the book.

Maybe that’s an all-too-foreseeable trap for a professional explainer whose usual method is to seek out experts and then translate their findings for us.

But in the past I’ve always felt flattered by Gladwell’s writing. I like having things explained to me. But I don’t like being talked down to by someone who’s telling me things I already know.

“David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants” is published by Little, Brown in the U.S. and Allen Lane in the U.K. (305 pages, $29, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Mark Beech on music.

To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at cseligman@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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