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Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 12:30:00 AM
Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 8:15:00 AM
By MARC DE FAOITE
David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co, 305 pages, non-fiction
MALCOLM Gladwell is a fantastically successful writer who earns millions on the lecture circuit and has written four New York Times non-fiction bestsellers including Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Big Difference. With his latest book, David And Goliath, Gladwell is on top form and it is likely to prove every bit as successful as his previous books.
His basic premise is derived from the Biblical story of David and Goliath, where a humble shepherd boy with a simple sling-shot overcomes a heavily armed and armoured giant.
Gladwell’s premise of the “little man” vanquishing a stronger foe, or overcoming improbable odds, derives its strength from the sympathetic archetype of the underdog, a character who most people naturally root for. Much of human literature is based on the idea of unlikely heroes from humble origins overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, slaying the giant, dragon, vampire, zombie, devil, evil, winning the day, getting the girl and riding off into the sunset. But this type of story owes its popular success to its very unlikeliness. The experience of the vast majority of the human population is quite different; the underdog rarely emerges victorious, hence the almost universal appeal of a reversal of the usual status-quo and a happy ending. Gladwell conveniently glosses over this, highlighting the exceptions that prove the rule, attempting to create and prove a new rule that is, in truth, generally an exception.
Things get a little technical in the second chapter, with lots of graphs and charts and facts and figures, which give this book the guise of a rational and reasoned thesis. Readers shouldn’t be put off, or more importantly, taken in by this sort of posturing on Gladwell’s part. While it might seem like a serious work of social science, it is in fact little more than a collection of short stories, each carefully chosen and framed to bolster the tenuous case he attempts to build.
That said, these stories are true stories, with real life characters and they are also extremely well-written, thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. Gladwell certainly is a master-wordsmith and no matter what level this loosely connected set of stories is taken on, the reader won’t be disappointed. It’s not for nothing that Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.
His subject matter is as diverse as it is interesting and he explores various themes and social issues. He shows that classroom size has little or no effect on academic results. The disadvantages and unlikely advantages of dyslexia are discussed at length. He maintains that growing up disadvantaged forces an individual to either sink or swim. He focuses uniquely on the swimmers and those who sink down under the weight of their burden go conveniently unmentioned.
Among many interesting episodes, he talks about the debilitating effects of fear, and even more importantly, the fear of being afraid. When the German Luftwaffe dropped bombs on Londoners during the blitz in World War II, the intention was to provoke a surrender by demoralising the inhabitants and forcing the British Government to capitulate and surrender. The British Government was fearful of the psychological impact the bombings would have on Londoners and built mental hospitals to welcome the inevitable shell-shocked and emotionally damaged survivors. In fact, those hospitals were never needed, and both the Germans and the British governments seriously underestimated the inherent resilience of the human race. Instead of being terrified into gibbering messes, the survivors emerged feeling invincible. The worst had happened and they had survived. Their sense of jubilation and defiance was stronger than the expected trauma.
Galdwell also looks at people who have lost a parent in early-life. He explores how the emotional impact of one of the worst things happening inures and inoculates the grieved to future sufferings and gives them a strength of character greater than they would have. One of the examples he gives is how the majority of American presidents have lost a parent during their childhood.
The variety of stories including, but not limited to, the American civil rights movement, academic over-achievers, the persecution of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland, and perhaps most importantly, the power of honesty and forgiveness as a survival mechanism, all make this enthralling little book a well worthwhile read. And of course there is the added bonus of the fact that, despite trials and tribulations that would crush most people, the “little man” always emerges victorious against insurmountable odds.
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