What The Dog Saw – Book Review

This book consists of a collection of stories that have previously appeared in The New Yorker, all written by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a talented writer who is able to draw from many disciplines and change the inane to the interesting. These shorter works are disconnected, only loosely fitting into the three categories that Gladwell divides them into: Minor Geniuses, Theories, & Intelligence. Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point remain his best works, but this book is still an entertaining, thought provoking read.

The section on Minor Geniuses covers Ron Popeil, Ketchup, Taleb and the Black Swan, Hair Dye, the inventor of birth control, and the dog whisperer. The two that stand out in this section are the first and the last. Ron Popeil’s history is interesting and Gladwell sheds light onto his personality and business style like few interviewers good. He manages to capture Popeil’s zeal for his products in way that may compel you to purchase a Showtime Rotisserie after reading this chapter. The other highlight of the Minor Geniuses section is the chapter on Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer. Having never seen the show, Gladwell once again excels in conveying both Millan’s electric personality and his passion for his business. The animal psychology that Millan specializes in is fascinating and makes a great read.

The next section is devoted to Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses and covers information theory, how to solve homelessness, the limits of photography, plagiarism, intelligence reform, the difference between choking and panicking, and the Challenger Explosion. The first chapter that stands out in this section is the one on homelessness. Gladwell presents an economic case for social reform. While there are some pieces missing to the puzzle, this chapter is thought provoking and will get you to think about solving social problems in new ways. Gladwell’s greatest gift, in my opinion, is attacking subjects from a new angle, coming at them sideways instead of headlong, and allowing the reader to think in fresh ways – the chapter on homelessness, Million-Dollar Murray, is a great example. Others that are worth spending some time on include The Picture Problem and The Art of Failure.

The final division in What The Dog Saw is dedicated to Personality, Character, and Intelligence. This was certainly the most consistent section, no duds to be found. The chapters cover how we define genius, hiring practices, criminal profiling, the talent myth, interviews, and what pit bulls can teach us about crime. The section on criminal profiling was new information to me and is presented in a credible way. Gladwell gently tries to pry away the assumptions that we have about criminal profiling and does a great job. Again, this is not a complete picture, but Gladwell gives just enough information to prove his point valid and warrant further research in one is inclined to learn more. The other standout in the section is the last chapter on crime and pit bulls, though each chapter in this section was worth reading.

In my estimation, Gladwell is one of the best writers that we have now. He has combined great writing skill and a knack for exposing excellent stories where there seem to be none. Some have warned that he is not a scientist, does not provide enough information, and does not provide enough research to prove his points. I agree with all of that to an extent, but am thankful for it. Writers who are able to take the hard sciences and popularize them with stories and anecdotes are a gift and we need more of them, not less. This is thought provoking, entertaining literature and is recommended.