Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I confess. I'm absolutely batty over Malcolm Gladwell's writing. I don't always agree with him, but his essays in The New Yorker are a highlight. I read them hungrily, so when a friend of mine sent me What the Dog Saw and other adventures, I couldn't put it down. This is a collection of the best of the best from The New Yorker.

In the title essay, Gladwell wonders what went on in a dog's head when it encountered the original dog whisperer, Cesar Millan. Millan works with troubled dogs in troubled families. Some families don't know how to discipline their pets to achieve the desired results. Some dogs don't know what's expected of them, so they act out. Millan assesses situations and works with the family to reverse bad behavior by enforcing good. Much like children who respond to structure and consistency, dogs need the same thing.

We meet Ron Popeil, one of the first television pitchmen, who help revolutionize our kitchens with gadgets we couldn't afford not to have. His scream-and-buy delivery served as the model for later pitchmen, all of whom try to sell us items for under $19.95 (plus shipping and handling). "But wait, there's more." We can thank Popeil for these techniques and for Gladwell for introducing us to a most interesting character.

Several essays deal with the Enron debacle, including as profile of Jeffrey Skilling. He probes whether Enron had too much or too little information to make informed decisions. He writes about Enron's hiring practices where the best and the brightest were hired and set loose on the U.S., and indeed the global, economy.

In a wonderful essay about who's right for a job and, therefore, likely to succeed, Gladwell focuses on a football scout looking for the next great quarterback. In draft after draft, highly praised and highly picked quarterbacks, all stars in the college system, flame out in the NFL. He says in the 1999 draft, five quarterbacks were drafted with great hooplah. Of the five, only Donovan McNabb lived up to his promise. The others didn't. Why? Because the greatest college quarterbacks run the spread offense, something that doesn't exist in the NFL. A star in one league, an overpaid dud in another.

From a profile on the man who created the birth control pill and who never profited from it to FBI profilers who are wrong more often than they are right, Gladwell reveals his intensive curiosity for things out of the ordinary. Have you ever wondered why we can buy basically one kind of ketchup but a hundred different kinds of mustard. Gladwell did--and wrote about it.

Why do I like Malcolm Gladwell? Because his mind is even spookier than mine.


  1. Geez! Really that spooky? Good review, Betsy.

  2. I'm going to have to put this title on my long, long TBR list. Thanks for the tip!