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Malcolm Gladwell

Choose the Slingshot

Nicola's brings Malcolm Gladwell to the Michigan Theater

by Keith Taylor

From the January, 2014 issue

Malcolm Gladwell has built an enormous career explaining the obvious in interesting and accessible ways. That is not a criticism. For instance, his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, argues that, despite his size and his armor, Goliath was actually at a disadvantage when he fought David: he chose the wrong battleground down in the valley, where the smaller and much quicker David could use the force and accuracy of his sling to powerful effect while staying well clear of Goliath's gigantic sword. Gladwell reminds us throughout this book that "much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the art of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."

That idea, though one that we often encounter in our American optimism, leads Gladwell to his second important point: "the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate." But if Gladwell's book were only a riff on this wonderful old story as a self-help metaphor, it would fall very short indeed.

His real strength, here and in his earlier work, has been to combine those methods perfected by the staff writers of The New Yorker--where Gladwell has worked since 1996--with his own particular abilities to explain ideas we didn't know we cared about. In addition to a prose style that tries to be as clear as possible without sacrificing the possibilities of meaning that grow from complex syntax, Gladwell places the stories of very different subjects next to explanations of current research in the sciences or social sciences. His conclusions often offer a surprisingly optimistic turn on the foibles of our species. That optimism is surely the source of his immense popularity.

For instance, in a chapter that circles the successes of the lesser-known civil rights organizer Wyatt Walker, Gladwell begins by describing the effect of that photograph of the young man calmly facing the police

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and their dogs, a photo we all know. Then he gives a short history of that moment in Birmingham in 1963, when the civil rights movement was at a low moment. Walker sent children out into those streets knowing that they could be brutalized by the police. Even some of his allies thought he was very wrong to risk that. Gladwell diverts us for a moment into a discussion about the "trickster hero" who, in the stories of preliterate cultures, has always been able to divert his more powerful antagonists by forcing them to look elsewhere. He returns to the historical moment to show Walker indirectly forcing Bull Connor to "show his hand"--and understanding how the images then created would change public opinion. Gladwell returns to his controlling metaphor and tells us, "David has nothing to lose, and because he has nothing to lose, he has the freedom to thumb his nose at the rules set by others." It is a powerful lesson.

Nicola's Books won a contest to host Gladwell in Ann Arbor on the last stop of his book tour. He reads from David and Goliath and discusses his ideas at the Michigan Theater on January 27.     (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2014.]


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