For someone who never intended to be a writer, Malcolm Gladwell has done pretty well for himself as exactly that: he began as the business and science writer for The Washington Post, then made his way over to The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1996, and with the release of three wildly popular books (Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers), found himself sitting atop the New York Times Bestsellers list and emerged as perhaps the most recognizable name in contemporary American non-fiction. Not too shabby, Malcolm, not too shabby.
In What The Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Gladwell has collected his favorite essays that he’s written for The New Yorker from 1996 to present and compiled them into a single volume. As his essays span a broad range of subjects, he’s broken the book up into three sections: the first section, “Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius” focuses not on the people at the top, those with a great deal of power or fame or influence, but the people in the middle, individuals like Ron Popeil, the Chop-O-Matic salesman, or Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, whose knowledge of their particular subject is unparalleled; the second section, “Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses” takes a look at how we as humans think about things, from homelessness to plagiarism to the Challenger explosion, and how we should think about them; and the third section, “Personality, Character, and Intelligence,” is devoted to examining the ways that we make judgments about others, whether they’re a bad person or a qualified applicant for a job or deserving of a raise, and how those judgments may not always be fully-formed or entirely accurate.
The entire collection of essays is really strong and engaging throughout, but there were a few essays that really stood out to me. “The New Boy Network” examines the important role intuition and first impressions play in a job interview and how little they are actually able to tell us about a person’s capabilities to perform well within the context of the job, as well as how the hiring process would have to change in order to avoid hires based on the bias of personability. “True Colors” looks at the hair dye market in post-war America, and compares Clairol’s “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure” campaign, which encouraged a woman to bridge the gap between “the kind of woman she was and the kind of woman she felt she ought to be,” and L’Oreal’s “Because I’m worth it” campaign, which was originally written as a veiled statement of feminism and has since become perhaps the most well-known hair dye slogans of all time. “Something Borrowed” problematizes the damning offense of plagiarism, and asks questions about the life cycle of creative property and the difference between “borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative,” questions that are made all the more interesting considering that one of the cases of plagiarism Gladwell looks at involves a playwright’s “borrowing” of his own writing.
In his preface, Gladwell addresses the most commonly-asked question he gets as a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?,” by explaining:
“The trick… is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it’s a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one. We go to a bookstore and look at twenty novels before we pick the one that we want. We filter and rank and judge. We have to. There’s just so much out there. But if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct every day. Shampoo doesn’t seem interesting? Well, dammit, it must be, and if it isn’t, I have to believe that it will ultimately lead me to something that is.”
This curiosity, this ability to find something of interest in any subject, is perhaps what I appreciate the most about Gladwell as a writer. It seems to me a real feat of creativity to be able to take a commonplace and mundane subject like ketchup or hair dye and turn it into an essay that is undeniably fascinating and engaging. The way that Gladwell writes is miraculous, in that he’s able to bring together several seemingly disparate stories and perspectives into a single seamless narrative that is never simply about ketchup or hair dye, but rather how those commonplace and mundane subjects can explain something about who we are as humans. It’s an incredible gift he has.
So now you know why I want to be Malcolm Gladwell when I grow up. I usually end these book reviews with an “if” statement, but there are no ifs about What The Dog Saw: it’s one of the most fascinating, well-written and thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and I highly doubt that you will regret reading it.