Thursday, September 9, 2010

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: 4 Stars 

A recurrent escapist fantasy for some may be to be marooned on an island paradise with their favorite book. Well, if you give me a Malcolm Gladwell book, you can keep the island paradise.

His latest offering, “What the Dog Saw” is a compilation of essays that he wrote while working as a staff journalist for the ‘New Yorker’. Though each one is a disparate article, the author nevertheless entertains, informs, and enlightens in the inimitable style that rocketed his previous three books to the best-seller lists.

Not everyone may be equally impressed with his choice of subject matter. Some of them seem pretty trivial, but one attraction of this book is the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated topics, that somehow not only work, but also manage to elucidate one another. A good example is the one where he traces the trajectory of the Feminist movement with the development of the Hair Coloring industry. Or, where he draws points of comparison between predicting the next NFL great, or the next terrific teacher.

As with most of his books, Gladwell’s deep interest in the workings of the mind (human and otherwise) is apparent here as well, whether it’s in the ‘science’ of criminal profilers (he’s too polite to call them charlatans, he leaves that to the reader to infer), or the intuitive body language of the “Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Millan, whose story forms the title of the book. If you’ve ever wondered why some people do better than others at job interviews, and have prospective employers eagerly wooing them; whether early precocity predicates genius; or, if smarts equals success, the author has an insight to offer. Each is an appetizing slice of psychology that surprises with its freshness.

On the subject of Enron, he has a lot to say. One chapter is a dispassionate reworking of that recent debacle with a more equitable apportioning of blame. Another is a scathing indictment of a corporate culture that seems almost mind-bogglingly narcissistic and undisciplined, fawning over talent and potential, at the risk of jettisoning common sense, let alone business acuity.

There are many points on which the reader might wish to argue with the author. Perhaps he’s not too proprietary over his work, but surely intellectual copyright serves its purpose. There are some instances where his solutions are staggeringly simplistic – give the homeless a home. But neither are they easy to dismiss.

Gladwell’s work is part myth-busting - debunking some of our most fondly cherished ideas - and part social commentary. Those who offer social commentary don’t demand that their ideas be executed into action. They simply offer an alternate view, and that is something out of the ordinary in itself. As he succinctly observes,

“…if everybody had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed changing.”

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