Musings from a quirky observer

Canadian non-fiction writer Malcolm Gladwell contemplates and captivates in his latest book What the Dog Saw

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. Little
Image supplied by: Supplied
What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. Little

It might seem impossible that one ordinary man could write intelligently on almost any conceivable topic, but that’s the brilliance of Malcolm Gladwell.

What the Dog Saw is the latest concoction from Gladwell, consisting of a collection of his essays appearing in the New Yorker—where he works as a staff writer—over the past 14 years. Covering everything from the science of birth control to the precocity of geniuses to TV pitchmen, it provides a highly unique overview of some of the most pertinent and captivating subjects of the last two decades.

With all four of his books currently on the Globe and Mail bestseller list—What the Dog Saw comes in at number two—Gladwell’s just short of becoming an -ism, and it’s not hard to see why. His eloquent writing and clever use of easily-identifiable examples make his work highly accessible for mainstream readers. In this work, he seems to have an interesting idea about almost everything.

Much of the book reads like a bedtime story for grown-ups. Gladwell often sets up his essays with the backstory of whomever he’s focusing on in the piece. It can get a little tedious, like the paradigm fashion magazines use in articles to start by talking about how the subject of the article appeared when they showed up to the interview. But Gladwell’s probably one of the most gifted anecdote writers you will ever find.

The book is divided—somewhat arbitrarily—into three parts, with the first exploring the understated masterminds of the modern world. This area is by far Gladwell’s strong suit. He very obviously has a soft spot for these kinds of individuals and showcases them with fascination and almost a hint of affection. One can imagine the delight Gladwell took in conducting many of the interviews.

The title essay “What the Dog Saw” falls into this category. The subject of the essay is César Millan, the man hailed as “the Dog Whisperer,” which is the name of his show on the Discovery Channel where he rehabilitates problem dogs. Gladwell’s descriptions of Millan’s interactions with the dogs are nothing short of breathtaking, but where readers will appreciate him most is his explanation of Millan’s talent. The title “What the Dog Saw” illustrates Gladwell’s mission to find out what these animals understand about Millan that we don’t. Gladwell uses this approach all throughout the book, trying to decipher what about these great minds makes them tick.

What Gladwell always tries to do with his eclectic portraits, though—and where some claim he errs—is to construct a broader statement on society based on his enlightening experiences with a few bright individuals. In one essay, he talks about the development of hair dye as being symbiotic with the women’s liberation movement of the 20th century. To a social scientist, it might seem like an overstep, but Gladwell delivers valuable insights into how little things in our everyday lives can symbolize many bigger social realities.

The second part of the book sees Gladwell breaking apart many common notions entrenched in our social psyche. Probably the best one—and the one most interesting for us in the world of academia—is Gladwell’s take on intellectual property. Gladwell recounts a story where one of his articles was plagiarized in a well-known Broadway play. Initially we see the playwright as a blatant thief, but as Gladwell offers some of the counterpoints to the typical intellectual property argument and an empathetic interview with the accused intellectual thief, we’re left wondering whether we all have it wrong.

Gladwell isn’t quite a contrarian but he certainly likes playing up ideas that challenge our typical mindset. In this sense, he’s kind of a post-modernist: he always seems to support one viewpoint with great fervour yet you have no idea who he’d vote for in a Canadian election. But rather than resort to standard polemics—like the trite “capitalism is ruining the world”—Gladwell simply points out flaws in our thinking that could be fixed to promote a more just and functional society.

Corporate American culture arises often, perhaps out of this endeavour. There are two essays about the fall of Enron in the book, a subject Gladwell seems to find deeply concerning lest we not take it as a lesson learned on the dangers of operating big business. But again, Gladwell employs a methodology in his analysis of Enron’s demise by explaining how its specific operations were counterproductive. He isn’t critical of big business as a whole, but rather sees many things wrong in what Enron was doing.

Gladwell always seems to appear on the outside of whatever situation he’s examining. He’s driven by a perpetual wonderment of America’s grandeur—possibly because of his upbringing in rural Ontario or maybe he’s just that kind of writer.

Because Gladwell always portrays himself as a kind of flâneur, it’s always a little awkward when he plants himself into his description. It distracts from the engrossing world he displays so intriguingly. He seldom enters the story but when he does, it jumps off the page like a swear word in an academic journal.

It’s difficult to characterize What the Dog Saw as informative, because it almost never uses facts and figures in its analysis. Instead, each of the essays provides a starting point for thinking about a particular topic differently. Many of the essays could easily be turned into a stand-alone book—and would have to be if we are to construct any new theory on the subject. But Gladwell doesn’t quite venture into the realm of social theory. Rather, he posits something new based on his own curious observations.

What the Dog Saw signals many forthcoming essays and books from Gladwell as new phenomena arise and issues go unnoticed. We can count on Gladwell to be the first to pick up on the idiosyncrasies of the next decade and if his latest work is any indication, we’ll likely enjoy reading whatever he has to say about them.

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