Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Recommendation: Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw"

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is interested in success (and failure), of individuals, of organizations, of ketchup. Gladwell, who in his previous bestselling book, Outliers, made the 10,000 hour rule famous (a theory I was so taken with as to make it the heart of a lecture I give at the university where I teach), is the reason I started subscribing to The New Yorker.

His most recent book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his best New Yorker articles
dating back to 1996.

I was 18 the first time I really became aware of The New Yorker. I was deep into what seemed at the time the most important romantic relationship of my life (it lasted 3 months); the girl's father subscribed to the magazine. He kept stacks in one of the suburban house's bathrooms, the basement bathroom, I think. I didn't like it. The magazine, I mean. The bathroom was fine. But The New Yorker bothered me. It bothered me because it intimidated me. The cartoons didn't make immediate Jughead sense (I am visually stunted, though, to say the least), but also to open a New Yorker - it was so dense and pompous. Screw that, I thought.

Cut to a few years after my middle sister married a truly voracious reader and New Yorker subscriber, and he started passing his read issues onto me. The article that sold me on the magazine was published six years ago. There were articles before, of course. Adam Gopnik's 2002 piece about his daughter's imaginary friend, "Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli" was a definite classic, but it wasn't till 2004's Malcolm Gladwell piece, "The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?" that I knew I had to subscribe to this magazine. The New Yorker was supposed to be all pretentious puffery about MOMA curators and underwater basket weavers (albeit of the highest calibre) and here was an article about what made Heinz so friggin good.

"The Ketchup Conundrum" provides a history of ketchup (and mustard - the genius marketing that increased Grey Poupon's sales exponentially came from those famous commericals; you remember: "Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"). The article explains, amongst other things, that to make a Heinz-worthy ketchup is in fact extremely difficult. It has to do with the consistency of the tomatoes, when to pick them, how much sun they need, etc...

If you've read Outliers, The Tipping Point or Blink you know Gladwell's remarkable ability to make statisitics and theory anecdotal. As he's said himself, he takes the work that academics research and makes it palatable for the rest of us. He does that with story. Milk and cookies time, as my friend Roy says it. We all love hearing a good story by the fire, and Gladwell knows this. Like that best professor you may never have had. Smart as Einstein, storytelling gifted as Spielberg. OK, I'm getting excited here. But you get my meaning.And Gladwell's books are well displayed in every airport bookstore for good reason.

There's nothing new under the sun, according to the old testament. Newness or uniqueness is so often a simple combining of seemingly disparate variables. Gladwell is a master at this. Take the piece, "Most Likely to Succeed," where he parallels the school system's nearly impossible task of selecting and knowing which new teachers will actually be good teachers with the equally unpredictable task the National Football League has of drafting quarterbacks, the one position in the game, as it turns out, that the draft most often gets wrong.

I recommend What the Dog Saw because I think Gladwell, a journalist of over 30 years, is an even better writer in magazine sized pieces than he is in his longer form books. As New Yorker articles are about triple the length of say a Time magazine piece, they are long enough for him to delve deep into a topic like
"The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic" or "The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?" and yet are short enough that he makes his point and you learn the facts and move on with it.

I thought I'd leave you with a few other highlights from the book, to give you a sense of the scope and breadth of topics Gladwell investigates with passion and clarity:

"The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American kitchen"
-about the man behind one of the best selling infomercial products ever (the Ronka rottiserie chicken)

"What the Dog Saw: Cesa Millan and the Movements of Mastery"
-behind the dog whisperer

"Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?"
-Proof that there are many geniuses that only began to emerge in their fifties, or even later, as there are the child prodigy type. Here Gladwell proves that while child prodigies take up most of the landscape of our genius fantasy, the truth is that as many geniuses as were child prodigies were late bloomers.

2 comments:

  1. I love Gladwell's writing.

    The only criticism I have is of his book Outliers. Why were there were no women case studies in this book? Surely in a consideration of success he could have found some examples of successful women to discuss. Or did their examples not support his thesis? I wonder about this.

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  2. Good question. And a very serious oversight. The sad truth, though, is that when looking at the very best of athletes and artists of the last century, the pool of women is far smaller ... Still, he could have included one or two, couldn't he?

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