A Review of David and Goliath

by Ashish

Why does one read Malcolm Gladwell books?

That’s a little like asking why one watches a movie like, say, Inception. Of course the primary thesis isn’t one that you can easily agree with, and it is perhaps more than a little unrealistic as well. But that doesn’t stop the movie (or the book!) from being a very entertaining ride.

Actually, if one is to be fair (and one strives to be, all the time), Inception is not really an appropriate comparison. Gladwell’s theses aren’t all that unrealistic, and in fact are quite simple, easy to understand and very persuasive indeed. The arguments and examples he uses, on the other hand, can sometimes leave one scratching one’s head, which is what a lot of people tend to focus upon.

But here’s the point I’m going to try and make: one shouldn’t read Gladwell’s books with a view to argue with his point of view or his conclusions. One should read his books in order to know stuff that you didn’t stand a chance of finding out about otherwise. For example, in the latest book that he has come out with, David and Goliath, he cites references that we wouldn’t otherwise consider touching with a barge pole.

Consider one of the many papers that he cites – this one  has the mesmerizing title ” The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions” , and is written by those best selling sociologists, Rogers Elliott and A. Cristopher Strenta. And a guy called et al, who writes a simply amazing number of papers in virtually all academic fields – but that’s a story for another day. The paper was published in that widely read journal which the entire planet is intimately familiar with, the famously racy “Journal of the Association for Institutional Research”.

Its safe to assume that this wouldn’t form the kind of reading that you and I would go in for on a daily basis. And Gladwell’s books tend to be full of such references. Arcane, abstruse stuff that is published in journals that are read by three people at most. I exaggerate of course, but only to accentuate my argument. Gladwell, having no doubt jotted for himself the principal points of the book, hares across to the local library and hunts down those musty tomes that contain these deep dark secrets. Or he’s really, really, really  good at Google searches. It’s one or the other. But here’s the crucial point: his ability, and this is the reason I don’t mind spending money on his books, lies in fashioning an eminently readable tale from building blocks as boring as these.

He’s done it in Blink, in Outliers and he repeats the feat in David and Goliath. The idea is fairly self-explanatory – he focuses on why the underdog isn’t really the underdog – not if the underdog thinks things through. In order to do this, he grabs us, the hapless reader, by the scruff of our necks, and careens us through leukemia,  London during WWII, the American schooling system and a lot of other stuff that one would otherwise have not thought of in this context.

He also examines the question in another context – why is Goliath at such a disadvantage when David puts his thinking cap on? And once again, to buttress his defense of this aspect, embarks upon the kind of tour across time and space that usually requires the consumption of copious amounts of the good stuff.

So is the book worth reading? I’d say yes, without reservations.

His examples, like I said, don’t always bear scrutiny, and you tend to go through your fair share of ” Yeah, fine, but have you…” moments – but again, you’re missing the point if you go on carping about this. Gladwell seeks to inform in light vein, as he always does.

And where his latest book is concerned, he succeeds, as he always does.