What the Dog Saw
And Other Adventures
Little, Brown: 410 pp., $27.99
Book critics at major metropolitan newspapers receive hundreds of books each week. A couple of decades ago, most of these were fiction; the nonfiction was often about faraway corners of the world and the explorers and scientists who charted them. Then, in the 1980s, came a wave of self-help books, followed by the decade of memoir as well as fiction by second-generation immigrants. This last decade, we’ve seen more essay collections and delightfully arcane books about the marginalia of our lives -- the toasters and spices and pencils we use but don’t know much about. If literature is a mirror, how has our perspective on ourselves changed?
This question inevitably leads us to the work of Malcolm Gladwell, whose essays in the New Yorker and wildly successful books on success and other cultural habits -- “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers” -- have helped us (Americans, but also a global generation) see ourselves differently.
Notions of success in this country were long overdue for an overhaul by the time Gladwell came along with his wait-a-minute-let’s-have-a-look-at-this style, as were truisms about risk and merit and intelligence and other key components of the American dream.
Gladwell started as a reporter at the Washington Post. Strictly speaking, he left that path soon after 1996, when he joined the staff of the New Yorker, where a little leash goes a long way. Gladwell always had an eye for good stories, but at the magazine he gained the confidence to use these stories to say something larger about American culture. He also gained the confidence to reveal more about his own perspective; to let his readers watch him as he assembled his theories from historical, statistical and empirical evidence.
In these essays, all of which first appeared in the New Yorker, Gladwell starts, as always, with a person or event; Ron Popeil (inventor of kitchen gadgets and king of the infomercial), Cesar Millan (dog whisperer), Nolan Myers (computer scientist, Harvard graduate), the Challenger explosion, the John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash. He assembles the facts in a seemingly artless way. He zooms out to the generation, the culture, adding a bit of statistical data. He picks up speed mid-essay as he ties his reader’s fate, his reader’s hopes and dreams to the efforts of his main character. He slows to an ending that almost always contains a moment of shared awe. (The pianist and composer Keith Jarrett can often be heard, in recordings, exclaiming or issuing a sharp intake of breath as he plays. As a young listener, I used to call that ego; the older I get, the more I appreciate the sense of curiosity and the delight of discovery those audible breaths reveal.)
“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade,” Gladwell explains in his preface. “It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head -- even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.”
Critics call this a cheat sheet -- when a writer outlines the criteria by which he’d like to be judged. It illustrates the extent to which Gladwell’s capacious mind surveys, like a rancher doing daily rounds, the boundaries of his own work. As effortless as he makes his writing seem (the phrasing but also the pursuit and construct of his ideas), Gladwell is an old-fashioned control freak, a master essayist who obeys the imperative of his generation -- Thou Shalt Appear Effortless. Here’s what you thought you knew, he tells us. Here’s what it looks like from another angle -- the angle of failure, say, or the point of view of the dog being whispered to, or the writer whose work has been plagiarized. Before you get all up about something, take a look at which buttons are being pressed. Are they yours? Are they really yours?
This is not journalism. It is not self-help. It is not sociology. In many ways, Gladwell’s writing has more in common with those explorers and scientists. There’s Gladwell, digging away. His head pops out of the hole, an archaeologist parsing a culture that failed thousands of years ago. “They revered youthful genius!” this fictional Gladwell exclaims. “They believed in the eternal life of the written word!” “They confused puzzles and mysteries!” “They ate only one brand of ketchup! . . . No wonder they perished!”
Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.