Review: David and Goliath

In 2010 I saw Malcolm Gladwell speak at The Lowry in Salford. It was in the aftermath of the UK election, and he began by assuring us that if any audience members needed to leave, in order to form a government, during his talk he was ok with it. Beyond that I have a vague memory of him discussing education, and the testing of new pharmaceutical drugs; I believe the topics covered may have formed chapters in What The Dog Saw which was published around that time.

I mention this because it exemplifies the problem I have with Malcolm Gladwell’s books. They’re gently entertaining, thought-provoking, yet after a few weeks I’m left with impressions, but little memory, of the anecdotes and facts I’ve read. So while I’ve been meaning to read David and Goliath since it was published, it’s taken my reading challenge to actually get me to do it.

The starting point for the book is that we have been reading the story of David and Goliath wrong: this is not the story of an unarmed boy miraculously defeating a trained soldier, but of a wily young man who was victorious because he fought on his own terms, instead of by the rules of engagement. Gladwell covers the re-reading of this story by academics in some depth, as it lays the foundation for the anecdotes that he goes on to share. These anecdotes cover both those who were successful because they ignored society’s rules on how to achieve success, and those who failed while following them. I find with Gladwell’s books that there is always one anecdote that resonates with me personally – in this case the story of the young woman who went to the best possible school for her subject, couldn’t keep up with the pace of study, got discouraged, dropped out, and still experiences unhappiness at failing to act out her plans in life. Gladwell offers this anecdote, amidst data on the relative grades of students in both great and good schools, to suggest that for some people, it is better not to go to the best school, but to one where they will be in the top percentile of students for that subject. This resonated not because I shared her experience, but because (through roundabout means I won’t go into here) I studied at a University which was not top for my subject, and found myself in a Department which was at the cutting edge of research in certain areas, that I would not otherwise have studied, and where I did exceptionally well.

Of course, my experience does bias me in favour of Gladwell’s point. I know that some reviewers take issue with Gladwell’s broadbrush use of data, and over reliance on carefully selected anecdotal evidence, and I do wonder if some of the continued appeal of his work is that, like me, many readers find anecdotes that strike a chord with them. And I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing if it gets people thinking about the issues that he raises. David and Goliath is not in the realm of life-changing books, but it’s an interesting read, and a starting point for interesting discussions.