New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell’s collection of articles in What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures is like culture candy. His excavation and exploration of Western cultural icons, science, thoughts, products and ideas makes him something of a contemporary cultural anthropologist. A blurb on the back of his book describes him as a writer who “finds the intersection of science and society to explain how we got to where we are.”
Gladwell obviously has a gift for casting his eye on both the ordinary and the extraordinary that surround us and writes about it in a way that makes us see these things in a different light. As a journalist and a writer he finds his story by trying to get inside someone else’s head. The title of the book refers to a piece he wrote on Cesar Milan.
Gladwell wondered what was going on inside Milan’s head and then realized that the real story was what was going on inside the dog’s head. That, in a nutshell, is what you get when you read this book.
The kinds of things Gladwell turns his attention to, for example, are things like why is is it that French’s Mustard market dominance was compromised when Dijon mustard, the new kid in town, nudged its way onto American grocery shelves, while Heinz’s ketchup, to this day, still reigns supreme? Or why is it that the pill has a 28 day cycle; why do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job or how does criminal profiling really work? These are just a few of the arcane mysteries that Gladwell for the most part, capably examines.
Truthfully what I liked about this book is that I could read it and not fall asleep. Generally non-fiction is not something that easily engages me. I read fiction because it takes my heart and soul on a ride and brings them back shredded and expanded in equal measure and I like that. I rarely if ever have that in non-fiction. This kind of writing, however, gives you plenty of those little “ah hah” moments even if they’re not of the emotionally resonant sort but more along the lines of “hmmnn interesting, I never knew that.” and then you promptly forget it.
This I suppose is the downside of this book for me. Do I really care about any of these things that he actually writes about? In some ways this is like the next iteration of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, a series which I also quite like but which lends itself more to dinner party repartee than anything else. I’m also not always that crazy about his use of the comparative style in most of his pieces. In some cases the comparison’s just seem really far-reaching, for example, the piece on Cesar Milan and the dance therapist…maybe I was tired but I just didn’t really understand the point or the comparison. There are also some stories, for example, the one on criminal profiling which pretty much had me wondering what the point of the whole article was. All in all, the book is worth picking up but it won’t be a book that lasts with you forever.