David's Reviews > What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
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's review
Jan 18, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2010, anthologies-and-collections
Read in January, 2010

There seems to have been a bit of a backlash against Malcolm Gladwell during the last year, but this book, a collection of his New Yorker pieces, reminds us why he achieved such prominence to begin with. Gladwell's particular talent is to take a subject which might seem initially to be irredeemably dull and to poke at it from all sides until he locates the particular angle which will allow him to tell a story, simultaneously entertaining and edifying his readers. There's a little more to it than that, of course: in particular, a seemingly unbounded curiosity about why the world is the way it is, and the skill to craft narratives that engage the general reader without being either boring or condescending. One of the factors which contributes greatly to his success is an almost uncanny ability to explain technically complicated material in an accessible manner - he makes this seem so effortless that I think people have begun to take this aspect of his work for granted. I think it's anything but effortless, that it takes hard work every time and he is one of only a handful of writers to pull it off regularly. You may find yourself disagreeing with something that Gladwell is telling you, but you generally won't have too much difficulty figuring it out.

Gladwell groups the essays in this book into three broad categories:

Part 1: Obsessives, pioneers, and other varieties of minor genius
Part 2: Theories, predictions, and diagnoses
Part 3: Personality, character, and intelligence

In the first part, which includes profiles of Ron Popeil (the infomercial king), Cesar Millan (the dog whisperer), Nassim Taleb (contrarian investor and author of "Fooled by Randomness"), as well as chapters on ketchup, hair coloring, and the history of the contraceptive pill, Gladwell sticks closest to his source material, avoiding the kind of premature generalization that is his Achilles heel. He isn't always successful in doing so in the remaining parts so that, while his lucid common sense on the topics of mammography, plagiarism, homelessness, and criminal profiling is a breath of fresh air, his arguments about organizational culture (the Enron debacle, the Challenger explosion) and predictors of individual performance (why some people choke and others panic, are smart people overrated?) are not entirely persuasive.

Nonetheless, this is a fine collection. Gladwell on a bad day still manages to eclipse most other non-fiction writers out there.

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