Having three books reach international bestselling status in one
decade has some benefits. For Malcolm Gladwell, a modern-day
observer of life’s often unexpected consequences, there is
some irony in his latest effort, WHAT THE DOG SAW. Gladwell became
a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1996, and his
bestsellers --- THE TIPPING POINT, BLINK and OUTLIERS --- all
appeared in serialized form in that magazine. WHAT THE DOG SAW
brings together in one volume many of Gladwell’s best and
thoughtful columns from the past decade. For those readers whose
only exposure to the British-born writer is from his books, this
“best of” volume is a wonderful addition to a Gladwell
library. The articles --- while not worthy of a full book --- are
entertaining, informative and charming in their own right.
In his introduction, Gladwell suggests that the pieces in this
compendium represent many of his favorite columns. They are grouped
into three sections. The first contains profiles of people
designated “minor geniuses.” These are individuals who
many of us know, not necessarily by name or face, but for their
accomplishments. My favorite mentioned here is Ron Popeil, the
father of gadgets and infomercials publicizing those gadgets. As
the proud owner of a Showtime Rotisserie, I was fascinated to find
out how the machine was designed and marketed. I also enjoyed
learning about Popeil and his history as a pitchman, beginning in
the 1950s in the Maxwell Street area of Chicago, Illinois. The
chapter ends with Popeil pitching the cooker on QVC and selling one
million dollars of product in less than an hour.
The second section is devoted to theories and ways of organizing
experience. Here, readers can get a grasp of how Enron was able to
accomplish its massive swindle. There also is an interesting
chapter on the notion of blame and how disasters can occur without
fault. This is a thought-provoking concept in a world where major
and minor events are placed under a microscope of fault, blame and
consequence. One of Gladwell’s important qualities is that he
is not afraid to suggest to readers that what seems to be obvious,
clear and simple is often not so. And then he goes on to tell you
why that is.
The final section of this compendium deals with predictions we
make about people. Here, we meet Dan Shonka, a scout for the
National Football League. Shonka’s job is to evaluate college
players for the NFL draft. Football fans recognize the importance
of the draft --- indeed, the NFL has made it a television
extravaganza that will be spread out over three days this year.
Should you scoff and say, “I don’t care about
football,” Gladwell’s article suggests that the
American education system can learn from NFL scouts. Finding
quality teachers is a task similar to finding great NFL
quarterbacks; no one can determine a person’s potential
simply by viewing them in the abstract. Only when a
quarterback’s performance is seen in an actual game can their
ability be evaluated. In the same fashion, a teacher cannot be
truly evaluated until they are in a real classroom performing
actual teaching tasks.
Malcolm Gladwell’s popularity comes in part from a deep
streak of optimism and enthusiasm. Genius can be found in many
forms and is not limited to the elite and wealthy of the world. He
is the master at writing an article that tells readers something
important but has them respond by acknowledging, “I knew
that, but I never thought about it in that fashion.” He
observes the world through human stories, working his way through
simple details, and in the end showing us how conventional wisdom
is neither conventional nor wisdom. There are skeptics who
denigrate Gladwell as too simplistic and, sometimes, simply wrong.
Love him or loathe him, he is thought-provoking and entertaining.
WHAT THE DOG SAW is a peek back at his early writings that paved
the way for his journey to the world’s bestseller lists.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 24, 2011