Saturday, March 13, 2010

What the Dog Saw...more adventures from Malcolm Gladwell

by Wenda Dottridge

If you've ever read a Malcolm Gladwell book or New Yorker article you already know he is a skilled writer who is capable of taking threads of ideas and weaving them together into an arresting intellectual tapestry. His latest book, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, provides the same mind-expanding experience as his previous books but in a different way.
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures  is a collection of Gladwell articles previously published in the New Yorker. Unlike his other books in which he develops an overall thesis thoughout, What the Dog Saw simply provides a smorgasbord of brain food.

I never really gave much thought to informercials, other than to change the channel as soon as I landed on one. Until I read What the Dog Saw's first article. "The Pitchman" brought to mind a morning I sat stranded at home with sick toddlers. An infomercial came on that I didn't quickly click away from. Instead, I was fascinated by a man named Ron Popeil with his rottisserie cooker and bald-head spray. Gladwell's story of the Popeil empire not only entertained, it explained why I didn't change the channel and why I still remember almost every detail of that half-hour paid advertisement.

In Part One he tackles more than kitchen pitches. He explains why there is only one kind of ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard; how one pessimistic investment broker bets against the market, and wins; how hair colour and feminism are connected; how the politics of the Roman Catholic Church helped create the pill and skewed modern beliefs about women's health; and, how one man built an empire by thinking like a dog.

What the Dog Saw does more than provide mind candy, although Gladwell does that. Always a contrarian thinker, Gladwell takes the everyday and examines it from a fresh perspective. He peels back the surface layer of what we believe we know to be true. In Part Two he tackles the problem with knowledge. In "Open Secrets" he points fingers not at Enron's corrupt leadership, but at a society that ignored repeated published predictions of Enron's demise. And then in "Connecting the Dots" he looks at the so-called 9-11 intelligence failures and asks what do we know, when we know too much?

In "Million Dollar Murray" he explains the difference between a bell curve graph and a hockey stick graph and while our heads are still working through high school math he challenges our pathological attachment to fairness. He points out that when it comes to societal ills, we act as if we are kindegarten students who need everything to be fair instead of behaving as adults willing to make personal sacrifices for justice. True, but ouch.

The article that should most interest writers in What the Dog Saw is "Something Borrowed." In this personal essay, Gladwell challenges everything you thought you knew about plagiarism. And more than that, he challenges the idea of what it means to be victimized when you've been wronged, but not damaged.

In Part Thee he tackles "personality, character, and intelligence." If this section seems a lot like Outliers, it's because it is a lot like Outliers. Articles like "Late Bloomers" and "The Talent Myth" are probably fascinating if you haven't read Gladwell's brilliant 2008 book, but if you're an avid  Gladwell fan, there isn't a lot new in this section of the book.

 What the Dog Saw isn't a read to be devoured in a single sitting. It is best consumed in small sittings with time to digest the material before moving on. But whether you are an avid non-fiction reader or prefer all your reading to provide escape, I highly recommend you sample some Malcolm Gladwell. He has a rare gift for challenging you to think more deeply without attacking anyone who might not share his viewpoint. He has a way of saying, "Come with me, I want to show you something." And then he leads you to new places and acts as your tour guide.

I'd love for you to share a comment with us. Do you read non-fiction? Malcolm Gladwell? Tell us about a time when someone challenged you to think about something in a new way?


  1. First of all, the second "o" in the word colour/color made me wonder if Narelle does that too.

    I'm so out of the loop, I haven't read any of them, so maybe I'll go with this book. I think I know where the 'hair colour and feminism' subject will go.

    Thanks Wenda!

  2. I don't actually read a lot of non-fiction outside of research anymore, but this sounds like it could be right up my alley.

  3. Interesting, Wenda. Thanks for sharing this book. Like Lisa, research is more up my alley.

    However, this sounds like a book I'd enjoy. What you're describing sounds a lot like a guy I listen to on the radio every day. And I do like collections like this, rather than non-fiction that is fairly heavy. I like that it can be absorbed in small bits before you return to the text. It reminds of Max Lucado, the one non-fiction writer whom I absolutely love.

    Deb seems to know what the connection is between hair color and feminism, but I'll confess, I don't. And I'd sure like to know. It's driving me crazy.

    Am I going to end up looking stupid because I've just confessed that I don't know?

  4. Hey Deb, I'm pretty certain Narelle's colours are the same as mine. Her neighbours, labours, favours, and flavours also probably match, too.

  5. Lisa, Gladwell is a good place to start with non-fiction if your not a regular non-fic fan. He's very easy on the palette. You can google some his articles and find New Yorker reprints online. As a writer I recommend "Something Borrowed."

  6. Suzie,

    You gotta admit that if this were Sesame Street hair colour and feminism wouldn't be two things that have to go together.

    But oddly enough, he makes it work.

  7. Wenda, this book sounds like an interesting and thought provoking read. And Deb, like Wenda mentioned, we use the English spelling for colour :-)

  8. I've been trying to expand my horizons with more nonfiction lately. This sounds like a good one. I talked about my current favorite nonfiction book last week, but another I really liked recently was A Million Miles in A Thousand Years by Donald Miller. It's especially interesting for writers because it's a story about story.

  9. Thanks Dina for the recommendation. I'll check it out.

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  11. Hey, narelle, thanks for stopping by and for standing up for my spelling!

  12. I don't read a ton of non-fiction, but Malcolm Gladwell's on my auto-guy list. This book's in my TBR piles as we speak.

    A book I'd highly recommend is MINDLESS EATING, by Brian Wansink. It's science-based, thought-provoking, and very practical.


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