What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

January 18, 2014

what_the_dog_saw Summary (from the publisher): What is the difference between choking and panicking? Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard-but only one variety of ketchup? What do football players teach us about how to hire teachers? What does hair dye tell us about the history of the 20th century?

In the past decade, Malcolm Gladwell has written three books that have radically changed how we understand our world and ourselves: The Tipping Point; Blink; and Outliers. Now, in What the Dog Saw, he brings together, for the first time, the best of his writing from The New Yorker over the same period.

Here is the bittersweet tale of the inventor of the birth control pill, and the dazzling inventions of the pasta sauce pioneer Howard Moscowitz. Gladwell sits with Ron Popeil, the king of the American kitchen, as he sells rotisserie ovens, and divines the secrets of Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer” who can calm savage animals with the touch of his hand. He explores intelligence tests and ethnic profiling and “hindsight bias” and why it was that everyone in Silicon Valley once tripped over themselves to hire the same college graduate.

“Good writing,” Gladwell says in his preface, “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, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” What the Dog Saw is yet another example of the buoyant spirit and unflagging curiosity that have made Malcolm Gladwell our most brilliant investigator of the hidden extraordinary.

Reaction:

As a fan of Gladwell’s other books, I was looking forward to reading What the Dog Saw — even though going in I knew this volume just contains a collection of previously published essays. I still thought I could get some entertainment out of the stories and perhaps pick up a bit of interesting information as well.

But I was pretty disappointed with what I actually got. Very few of the essays actually interested me (the Enron one, where Gladwell pointed out that the company didn’t actually hide any of their wrongdoing was pretty good, as was the one on homelessness), and most of Gladwell’s points were glaringly obvious (FBI profilers use a scattershot approach, it’s hard to predict future success based on past performance, there’s a difference between panicking and choking). This latter charge has frequently been leveled by Gladwell critics, but this is the first time I’ve actually agreed with them.

Another troubling aspect of this book was that many of the essays ended rather abruptly, without Gladwell drawing any conclusions from the information he just presented. (These abrupt endings were even more jarring in the audiobook version because of the lack of visual clues that the end had been reached.) I don’t know how many times I said aloud, “Yeah, so…?” or “WTF was the point of that???” after finishing one of the essays. Not a good sign.

On the plus side, Gladwell’s easy-to-consume writing style and way of presenting info in a straightforward, understandable manner were evident throughout the book, making it a tolerable read despite the shortcomings.

Rating:

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell is not a work I’d recommend to anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with this author. It’s more about the subject matter of the various disconnected essays than about the fact that they’re rehashed from previous New Yorker publications. Gladwell has written far more interesting stuff than this, so I’d advise others to steer clear. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

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