Allen Lane £20
What the Dog Saw, By Malcolm Gladwell
A 'New Yorker' stalwart in counterintuitive mood
Sunday 01 November 2009
The first "adventure" in What the Dog Saw, a selection of Malcolm Gladwell's articles and essays from his 13 years as a staff writer on The New Yorker, is that of Ron Popeil. Popeil is a renowned TV salesman, or "pitchman": the creator and vendor of a series of hugely popular cookery appliances, chief among them the Showtime Rotisserie and BBQ. His television infomercials are familiar to viewers across the US and, as Gladwell watches him perform live from the production booth in a QVC studio, the pitchman racks up sales worth $1m in a single hour.
The book's title, meanwhile, is taken from Gladwell's profile of Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer, who can calm an angry beast with a look and a touch of his hand. As he explains in his introduction, Gladwell is interested more by what's going on in the dog's head than by what's going on in Millan's.
Despite his undeniable success, in most pop-cultural contexts Popeil would be a punchline, a subject of satire, a symbol of America's unreconstructed capitalist urge; Millan would be merely an eccentric loner. But Gladwell transforms both into heroes. This sort of counterintuitive thinking – examining the world from the dog's perspective – was long ago assigned a new adjective by his many fans and detractors: "Gladwellian".
Gladwell has a standard modus operandi, which he employs for a good 75 per cent of the articles in What the Dog Saw: take two (sometimes three) disparate topics, use both to illustrate the same insight, and in so doing throw new light on each. Thus, an essay on how to hire the right person for a job deals in college football and primary-school teaching; another views different varieties of failure through the lenses of professional tennis and aviation safety.
Certain preoccupations emerge: feminine health, foreign intelligence, Enron. Gladwell's focus on the Enron scandal dates his pieces on big business to before the more momentous stock-market disasters of 2008, though "Blowing Up", his 2002 profile of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – a Wall Street trader who subsequently published his own Gladwellian book, Black Swan – presages the financial catastrophe to come.
Among the best pieces in this consistently absorbing collection is "The Talent Myth", an indictment of Enron's management culture, encouraged by the consultancy firm McKinsey. "The Ketchup Conundrum" asks why Heinz has a near-monopoly on the titular condiment while supermarkets teem with a multiplicity of mustards. "Something Borrowed", a chin-stroker on the theme of intellectual property, was written after an award-winning play plagiarised Gladwell's interview with a criminal psychiatrist.
Some of his New Yorker articles have undoubtedly informed Gladwell's longer works: a piece on late-blooming geniuses has echoes of Outliers (his 2008 book about extraordinary talents, from the Beatles to Bill Gates), while "The New Boy Network", about the efficacy of job interviews, overlaps with Blink (his 2005 book about the importance of first impressions). Yet a volume full of these wide-ranging, 6,000-word essays is, in fact, far more rewarding than an entire 300 pages devoted to a single, relatively simple notion.
Gladwell's detractors often point to what they see as plagiarism in his own writing: the uncredited borrowing of existing scientific research in the service of derivative, Gladwellian theories. Thomas Schelling, a social scientist whose work arguably formed the core of The Tipping Point, Gladwell's bestselling debut, is quoted as saying, "What he leaves people with is not that scientists are doing some interesting work, but that Malcolm Gladwell has a couple of good ideas." But Gladwell, who does frequently cite his sources, is a journalist, not a specialist. Moreover, the criticism overlooks his greatest gift – not for ideas, but for captivating stories.
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