Booked Up

Malcolm Gladwell Comes to Town

The New Yorker writer’s style is delightful, but does he overplay his hand?

By - Jan 30th, 2014 04:01 pm
Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is in Milwaukee this week and he will be greeted at a sold-out event by an army of rabid admirers. I have come late to his oeuvre, (which includes best-sellers “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point”) but have spent the last week listening to him read his latest, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” I was both delighted and disturbed by his striking insights… and his great leaps of logic! This David has become very successful and now experiences the dangers inherent in being the Goliath.

Gladwell has written for The New Yorker for almost 20 years and is a skilled journalist with a remarkable ability to bring together research from a variety of sources. From his rigorous and wide-ranging digging, he uncovers (and sometimes seems to contrive) remarkable and useful flashes of wisdom. These patterns are then applied to a grab-bag of examples from diverse fields of endeavor.

Gladwell’s major theses are 1) the experience of facing a “giant” brings possible greatness and produces beauty and 2) those we see as “giants” have inherent weaknesses that may not be readily apparent and that we can exploit to our advantage. He takes these two suppositions and heaps an extraordinary variety of examples onto a huge pile that becomes harder and harder to ignore. As the footnotes and charts mount, you find it harder to refute his thinking. It is an enchanting act of the mind.

This research acumen, however, scared me at times. The David and Goliath story is treated as a verifiable event and is analyzed by experts from ballistics to war history. I was with Gladwell on seeing this anecdote as a cautionary tale, until he posits that Goliath’s mention of “two sticks” [in the Biblical account] indicated that he was probably suffering from double vision caused by his height-inducing brain condition, acromegaly. While I enjoyed the hubris of the leap, I also felt doubt that had me wondering a bit about his other conclusions.

Gladwell’s piecing together of the puzzle can be a little too much at times, but his real strength is finding examples from history and the current world that elucidate his hypotheses. It is here that he dazzles and delights. No matter what your interests or profession, he finds fascinating people and vignettes that will help you see his points and possibly think of ways that you could apply them to your own situation.

These convincing examples include a novice basketball coach, Civil Rights leaders, the Impressionist salon, French WWII Resistance fighters, female science students, a cancer researcher, Connecticut school teachers, a Hollywood producer, and Lawrence of Arabia! Just as I began to question one story, Gladwell speeds on to another tale of success against all odds. He is also especially adept at interweaving these vignettes into a kind of tapestry that has fewer and fewer holes. Like a sonata, we enjoy the theme and its variations until we can’t get the melody out of our heads

Some critics have started throwing stones at Gladwell. He is seen as too successful and as with Goliath, they see an easy target, ready to go down. Gladwell’s real strength, however, is that he still sees himself as the little underdog. His self-image appeals to all of us, no matter what we think of ourselves — or our height.

Friday, January 31 (7:00 PM): Malcolm Gladwell, author of “David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” ticketed event at the UWM Helene Zelazo Center, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by the UWM Bookstore.  Public tickets are sold out.

Other Upcoming Book Events: 

Tuesday, February 4 (7:00 PM): Tim Federle, author of “Five, Six, Seven, Nate!” at Cocktails with Cream City in the Art Bar, 722 E. Burleigh, Milwaukee 53212. Note that this event is not for kids.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 (7:00 PM): a ticketed event with Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween” at the Lynden Sculpture Garden, 2145 W. Brown Deer Rd., River Hills. Co-sponsored by Milwaukee Reads and Bronze Optical.

Friday, February 7, 2014 (7:00 PM): Barbara Ali, author of “101 Things to Do in Milwaukee Parks: A Guide to the Green Spaces in Milwaukee” at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Monday, February 10, 2014, 7pm – Sue Monk Kidd, author of “The Invention of Wings” at Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall, 733 N. Eighth St. Sponsored by Boswell Book Company. This event is co-sponsored by 89.7 WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio. The question period will be moderated by Lake Effect’s Bonnie North.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at  And good reading!


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