Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Review: What the Dog Saw

It's very obvious that Malcolm Gladwell tried to get his start in advertising, then "fell back" to writing, as he decribes in the introduction to this, his latest book. He's at his best in short snippets, like ads, just enough to make his point (which usually results from two or three who'd-a'thunk type connections) and then get out of Dodge before the reader starts to think up objections. (This is why this book is definitely better than Outliers.) He's very good and very original, but it would be nice to see him in conflict with ideas rather than promoting them. (The ideas he sets himself up as being in conflict with are usually conventional wisdom "everybody knows" semi-strawmen ... but, to his credit, they usually ARE something everyone knows that he then shows is wrong!)

This collection gets stronger as it moves along. The first few articles feel almost like informercials, but later he has some very good essays, and my favorites usually involve some science. The problem with Gladwell is he's never faced peer review and it shows. In the introduction he says he hates it when someone reads something and says "I don't buy it" because writing's supposed to be entertainment. Well, I've said this before but ... I don't buy it. Every piece of writing is an argument. It's making an argument that you should take the time to read it. And Gladwell's actually very good at making that argument implicitly in his writing! So, sorry, Mr. Gladwell, I still don't buy it, but I will read it.

(Besides, "igon value" instead of "eigenvalue"?! That's just embarrassing.)

Regardless, there are enough good essays in this book that I think I may assign it to my students to buy for a seminar class for which his essays will be good introductions to the topics I'll discuss. But they are only introductions, good for getting the conversation started, surprisingly weak at commiting to practical conclusions that will change the way you go about life. (Maybe it's the underlying philosophical assumptions that mold everything else, assumptions that I may not "buy" into?) As a current article-writer and verbal welder of disparate ideas, Gladwell is unparalleled. Let's just get some real intellectual conflict in there and we'll have real depth.

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