A Theory of Everything
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, By Malcolm Gladwell, Little Brown (October 2009)
Malcolm Gladwell has lots of questions. What can the United States Air Force teach doctors about detecting breast cancer? What does a dance instructor look for in a competent dog trainer? Why are there so many different kinds of mustard, but only one kind of ketchup? In Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, a collection of his articles first published in The New Yorker, he attempts to find answers.
Gladwell, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and pseudo-literary celebrity for his bestsellers Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point, questions control the course of his curiosity. They are like storm drains channeling rainwater into the sea, or police barricades directing the march of a city parade. His paragraphs occasionally begin with a question, periodically end with one, and frequently contain other queries throughout.
From an inquisitive mind come interesting thoughts. Throughout the 19 essays Gladwell demonstrates his proclivity for linking ostensibly discrete events or trends together by some higher principle. Strategies for recruiting NFL quarterbacks become strategies for primary school education reform. Methods for reducing car exhaust become methods for reducing homelessness. Problems the U.S. encountered while battling German U-boats in WWII become problems companies encounter while disproportionately rewarding talented employees. This willingness to build bridges where most see a mountain range is what gives Gladwell his charm.
Gladwell is at his best when he fuses his ability to write clear, precise prose—especially about esoteric topics like stock market options and what went wrong with the Challenger space shuttle—with grand ideas in unique and unexpected ways, while continually reminding us that the human drama remains the impetus behind it all. And his best is quite good.
Surely, the growing number of Gladwell aficionados will enjoy What the Dog Saw, mainly because many of the essays seem to be either inspirations for, or leftovers from, his previous books. Gladwell argues the power of literature is to provide the reader with a glimpse into the mind of another, whether an inventor, a pilot, or CIA officer. In this case it succeeds: the mind we inhabit is Gladwell’s.
“You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story,” writes Gladwell in the preface. “You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world.” While this may be true for locating story ideas, Gladwell certainly does not finish there. His essays teem with psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and specialists of all sorts who he uses to validate and expound upon the experience of everyday people.
Yet, despite Gladwell’s claim, at times it seems like he finds his story ideas in academic journals and then assembles the appropriate individuals and historic occurrences to fit whichever social experiment or scientific theory he wants to advance. Certainly, if asked, Gladwell would acknowledge that the social sciences have their flaws and he does concede the “haphazard nature of science” in his article on birth control. But Gladwell’s consistent use of scholarly data implies that the world is much more organized, predictable, and coherent than it often is.
In another essay, Gladwell writes, “But there rarely is a clear story—at least, not until afterward, when some enterprising journalist or investigative committee decides to write one.” It is a shame that Gladwell can acknowledge the complexity of life, yet does not seem prepared to confront his own method of constructing an argument.