2006-2010 Book Reviews

What’s the difference between choking and panicking? – What the Dog Saw

I enjoyed the hefty, 410-page volume immensely…it reads a bit like a greatest-hits collection, and like greatest-hits collections, it serves as a perfect introduction to the author.

After seeing Malcolm Gladwell in an interview with Charlie Rose and receiving as a graduation gift a $50 gift certificate to Borders, I decided to pick up his latest book, What the Dog Saw (referred to hereafter as WDS), a series of essays collected from his work as a staff writer at The New Yorker. While somewhat disappointed to learn later that all of the essays appearing in WDS also appear free of charge on Gladwell’s website, I enjoyed the hefty, 410-page volume immensely, putting it down only for the occasional breath of fresh air or evening of Team Trivia. The book reads a bit like a greatest-hits collection, and like greatest-hits collections, it serves as a perfect introduction to the author.

The topics discussed vary widely, ranging from the ubiquity of Heinz ketchup to the myriad lessons taught by the Enron debacle, something upon which Gladwell touches a few times in the book. Throughout WDS, he makes insightful and provocative arguments on several subjects: we should dismiss the “romantic” style of interviewing most companies currently use; our current notions of birth control, ovulation, and menopause are extremely misguided; solve, rather than manage, homelessness by housing the chronically homeless. His arguments are for the most reasonable, and he generally tempers his stance by also considering potential objections to it.

In the anthologized format, however, Gladwell’s approach borders on formulaic: he opens many of the essays with a question on a certain subject, and in pursuit of the answer to that question, he considers a similar scenario occurring in a completely unrelated subject–yet I must commend him on his ability to draw connections from what appear to be the most disparate of things. For instance, in “Million-Dollar Murray,” Gladwell’s study of the homelessness problem, he explains the power-law theory, which he uses to expose a similarity between the chronically homeless to the chronically brutal members of the Los Angeles police force.

Above all, Gladwell’s seemingly effortless style shines throughout WDS. He peppers each essay with informative, entertaining details. Only occasionally does he delve too deeply into arcane fields of psychology or statistics, and even in those instances, he emerges from the murk with some cogent tidbit of information that further strengthens his position. Admittedly, this is my first exposure to Gladwell, but it has sufficiently piqued my interest to procure his other books (The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers), all of which have topped the New York Times bestsellers’ list. Check it out.