Pop-sociology giant fails to revive his ailing shtick in book "David and Goliath"


New York Times bestselling author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. He has once again successfully extracted an oversimplified social phenomenon, explained it in his introduction, and then belabored the point with a patchwork of shallow (but incredibly interesting) illustrations to pad 320 pages. Gladwell’s best-sellers The Tipping Point (2000) and Outliers (2008) used the same model, but provided meatier substance and more surprising conclusions. In David and Goliath, his newest non-fiction book, it’s easy to eat up Gladwell’s captivating writing, so long as the reader doesn’t think too critically about what is being said.

David and Goliath teaches two primary lessons, both of which are revealed in the introduction. Gladwell is strongest here, when he examines overlooked details in the familiar Bible story to ply new meaning from the text. Analysis of ancient battle traditions indicates Goliath expected a hand-to-hand gladiatorial duel. Even King Saul expected one. David’s approach as a slinger—the Bronze Age equivalent of carrying a .45 caliber—surprised everyone. Lesson 1: Davids can beat the odds with unconventional approaches, producing “greatness and beauty.”

The Israelites saw Goliath’s size and wallowed in despair. But what if, as Gladwell suggests, Goliath’s gigantism was caused by a tumor exerting pressure on his pituitary gland—a malady which often impairs eyesight? A courageous, fast-moving David might exploit the giant’s weakness. Lesson 2: the same things that make giants appear strong are frequently their source of weakness.

Gladwell concludes that “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong” because people have the tendency to underestimate the underdog and to overlook the giant’s weakness. He doesn’t explore the disconcerting implications his thesis holds for national security or terrorism. Instead, Gladwell employs his classic technique of blending together diverse examples, throwing in everything from T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian campaign to a girls basketball team’s blitz strategy to make a point about educational policy and classroom sizes. After weaving in an example about the Parisian Impressionists’ road to fame, Gladwell goes on to advise students to pass over Ivy League institutions in favor of mediocre colleges.

The rest of the book continues in much the same way, piling on one interesting illustration after another, largely bereft of rigorous analysis. Gladwell’s anecdotal style of pop-sociology is not conducive to argumentative structure. Yet his impeccable storytelling ensures that his comparisons never feel forced, even when he amps up the melodrama by comparing the 1940 London Blitz to overcoming dyslexia. Nevertheless, the connections are usually tenuous at best. Gladwell often cherry-picks information to paint his picture, as in the case of Emil J. Freireich’s experiments in treating children’s leukemia. Can Dr. Freireich’s groundbreaking experimentation with chemotherapy cocktails really be plausibly attributed to the loss of his parents at an early age?

In the preface to What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), a compilation of Gladwell's previously published articles from The New Yorker, the author explains that “Good writing, does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you.” On that score, David and Goliath is certainly good writing. It is engaging and mildly thought-provoking even as it fails to persuade. David and Goliath doesn’t offer groundbreaking insight or compelling commentary, even though it will probably sell a lot of copies. If you’re growing skeptical of Gladwell’s insights, however, this book might be your tipping point.