BOOK REVIEW: ‘David and Goliath’: Malcolm Gladwell Upsets Conventional Wisdom on Learning Disabilities, Crime and Punishment, Tough Childhoods, Civil Rights in Birmingham, Good vs. Great Colleges

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'David and Goliath': Malcolm Gladwell Upsets Conventional Wisdom on Learning Disabilities, Crime and Punishment, Tough Childhoods, Civil Rights in Birmingham, Good vs. Great Colleges
Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, in his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages, illustrations, notes, index, $29.00) Malcolm Gladwell follows the admonition of  the late great  “60 Minutes” producer, Don Hewitt: “Tell me a story.”

The stories he tells include the battle of David, the Israelite shepherd boy in the Valley of Elah confronting in his own way the “invincible” Philistine Goliath; accounts of people — Brian Grazer, Gary Cohn, David Boies —  who used their dyslexia to achieve success in their fields; civil rights “tricksters” in violent 1960s Birmingham, Ala., and a cancer researcher who fought to prove his theories.

With the wonderful storytelling  that is on display  in his  previous bestsellers —  “The Tipping Point”, “Blink”, “Outliers” and “What the Dog Saw” —  Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering ways of looking at what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a less than highly ranked university, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.Gladwell begins with the real story of what happened between the giant and the shepherd boy 3,000 years ago. From there, “David and Goliath” examines Northern Ireland’s troubles, the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, murder and the high costs of revenge, and the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms — all to demonstrate how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity.

As in his previous books, Gladwell in “David and Goliath” draws upon history, psychology, and powerful storytelling to reshape the way we think of the world around us.

The powerful account of the battles fought by cancer researcher Dr. Jay Freireich reminded me of how Chicago, his hometown, is a graphic example of a city whose motto should be “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (The real long-time  motto of the Windy City is “I Will” — just as good as my suggestion). Freireich grew up in the tough Humboldt Park neighborhood, not far from my mother’s Lawndale on the city’s West Side.

Challenging conventional wisdom is Gladwell’s strong point and he does it skillfully in “David and Goliath.” I’ve read other books by Gladwell, but this is the first one I’ve reviewed.

About the Author

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. Prior to that, he was a reporter at the Washington Post. Gladwell was born in England and grew up in rural Ontario. He lives in New York. His website:                                                                * * *

For other books that challenge conventional wisdom, see my review of “Embrace the Chaos” by Bob Miglani:

And my 2011 review of Alina Tugend’s “Better by Mistake”:

And my review of Peter Miller’s “The Smart Swarm”


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