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David and Goliath’ doesn’t live up to Malcolm Gladwell’s previous work

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Two and a half stars

David and Goliath By Malcolm Gladwell, $29.

Malcolm Gladwell is known for two things: 1. seeking out counterintuitive, relevant truths, and 2. presenting them clearly and engagingly. He did both of those things in his previous three books (Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw), but in his latest work, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, he’s only batting .500. The writing’s great, as always; what’s missing is the slew of surprising psychological, economic and cultural curveballs—the tidbits that make me want to start attending more cocktail parties for the sole purpose of sounding smart.

Gladwell begins with the titular tale. Basically, David wasn’t the underdog; Goliath was. All that heavy armor weighed Goliath down. The big guy might have even suffered from acromegaly—a tumor of the pituitary glad that would explain his size … and vision problems. He was simply no match for quick-moving David’s quick-moving stone.

Gladwell says that when giant countries go to war with tiny counties, and the tiny countries use unconventional or guerrilla tactics, the tiny countries win most of the time. What he’s saying is, “David and Goliath situations” aren’t always David and Goliath situations. Including the battle between David and Goliath.

Two bits in the book that really surprised me: 1. Smaller classrooms don’t always make for better learning environments, despite what we’ve been told by everybody. At some point, Gladwell writes, the smaller a classroom gets, the less students actually learn. 2. Martin Luther King Jr. was a master media manipulator, a guy who’d make Ryan Holiday proud. You know that famous picture of a black teenage boy being attacked by one of “Bull” Connor’s dogs? It was, according to Gladwell, essentially solicited. The civil rights activists did everything they could to make this photo op happen, knowing it would help their cause.

But David and Goliath is also loaded with something I haven’t experienced in previous Gladwell works: stuff I already knew. Most minority students who benefit from affirmative action in law school admissions are at the bottom of their class. The Impressionists thrived because they weren’t invited to the Salon. Challenging your grades in high school is a real-life skill. (I learned that one from Clueless.)

I’ll still recommend the book, but not to those who haven’t yet read Outliers. Or to whoever still hasn’t read Blink. If you get through those and still want more, sure, pick up David and Goliath.

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