Thoughts on “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

To borrow from the title of Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, it seems that public opinion of the New Yorker journalist may have reached a ‘tipping point’. His books still sell by the truckload to be sure but whereas it used to be cool to say that you had read the latest Gladwell book it now seems to be cooler to criticise his oeuvre. Gladwell is oft scoffed at, labelled as a pseudo-intellectual and accused of over-simplifying. While these criticisms certainly have a degree of merit, I unashamedly love reading Gladwell so I picked out his latest offering, David and Goliath, as one of my first books to read this summer.

Anyone who has read Gladwell before will be familiar with his writing style. His books each have a particular central thesis which he then argues for using various anecdotes. In David and Goliath, he aims to prove to the reader that the strong are often not as overpowered as we tend to assume while the weak are similarly not so disadvantaged. Moreover, he argues that the very things we normally assume to be advantageous can end up being the very downfall of the high and the mighty.

The first story he draws on to make this point is the tale of the clash between the eponymous heroes. Gladwell points out that although both the Israelites and the Philistines assumed that David never had a chance against the gigantic Goliath, he actually always had the upper hand. His reasoning is that David fought the battle on his terms, using a sling to kill his opponent from a distance. Gladwell goes on to point out that when supposedly weaker nations adopt the same strategy and wage guerrilla warfare against a larger oppressor, they are more likely to emerge victorious than if they mistakenly try to meet their oppressor head-on.

None of these ideas are particularly mind-blowing to be fair. Perhaps the more important question to ask is whether or not they are useful. On this, I’ll be generous and say that sure, they’re definitely worth taking into account. The lesson seems to be that when faced with circumstances where one appears to be at a disadvantage, a simple re-framing of the situation can offer up a solution. Again, nothing revolutionary but then that’s not what I read Gladwell for, even if he probably believes himself that he breaks new ground with every chapter.

The criticisms of Gladwell that I mentioned in the opening paragraph certainly apply here also. Take the accusation of over-simplification for example. This doesn’t bother me to any great extent as I consider it to be a necessary evil. Yes, one could probably make just as convincing an argument for the opposite of what Gladwell espouses simply by picking different anecdotes but that claim can be made for pretty much any essay ever written. Gladwell describes his books as “conversation-starters”. I like to think of them as “thought-starters” and in that vein, I’m prepared to forgive him only giving me one side of the story if it means that I will go on to think about the other side especially considering I may never have analysed either one side or the other otherwise.

Complaining that he doesn’t give us the whole story is a lazy complaint in my eyes, made just for the sake of being contrary. These books are not scientific papers, they are works of rhetoric. At times the rhetoric falters to be sure, more so in this book than in his earlier ones, but it still makes for a wholly entertaining read. He may cherry-pick the evidence to suit himself (hardly a unique fault) but at least he has the talent to select unfailingly fascinating anecdotes.