What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Sep 15, 2012

I'll take just about any excuse I can get to talk to someone about books...sometimes going to great lengths to coerce people into a discussion.  Case in point: Mike's family had a family reunion the first week in September, and I came up with the brilliant idea (inspired by Janssen) of having a book discussion as one of the activities. Luckily, Mike's parents and eight siblings (and spouses) are all readers themselves, so I didn't have to twist too many arms or offer too many threats to make this happen. (Haha...me offer threats? Yeah, right.)

But then I was faced with the daunting task of selecting a good book. Not only did it need to appeal to men and women, but also to a group of diverse talents and interests...from Mike's English major oldest sister to his computer-savvy brother-in-law to his nerdy physics professor brother (sorry, Jon). I polled the family and finally decided on What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell.

What the Dog Saw... is a collection of essays taken from Gladwell's writings for The New Yorker. The essay format worked really well for this type of book group because it provided not only flexibility (you could read anywhere from one to all nineteen essays) but also variety (everything from stock markets to birth control). Plus, almost everyone read Outliers a few years ago, so there was the added advantage of them already being Gladwell fans.

Each essay felt like a mini-version of Gladwell's larger works. He takes an idea (the scope and limits of taking pictures, for example), and he explores it in a completely unique way. One moment, he's talking about mammograms and then all of a sudden he's talking about bombing aircraft in WWII. It would be a little jolting except that somehow, he brings everything together beautifully, and who would have known, but bombing aircraft really does help us understand the benefits and pitfalls of mammograms. To be able to make seemingly random connections the way Gladwell does makes me realize that he must not only be a genius with research  but also have a gift for seeing the big picture and tying those elements together.

Before I talk about my favorite essays, I just wanted to mention a couple nit-picky observations. First, at times I found the writing to be a little more technical than I was expecting. This might not have been a problem if I had listened to it, but there were a few essays (especially the ones with lots of financial terms) that were a little hard for me to get through. Also, the paragraphs are reallllly long (like, over a page in some instances). This must be their format in The New Yorker (I guess I just blew my cover...I've never read The New Yorker), but it was hard on my eyes not to have the page broken up a bit more. That, and if you know how I do some of my reading (while trying to watch my kids simultaneously), it was hard for me to keep my place while looking up so frequently.

But enough of that. This book got me thinking in a multitude of ways about things I normally wouldn't think about. And I love a book that makes me think.

One of my favorite essays was about the art of failure (in fact, it was the one we spent the most time talking about at the family reunion...um, probably because I was leading the discussion!!). Gladwell talks about the difference between choking (focusing...to our detriment...on the things that should be second nature) versus panicking (we stop thinking and revert to instinct). Gladwell says that we often think of choking and panicking as the same thing (maybe even using the words interchangeably) but they are completely different in terms of their causes (choking happens because we think too much and panicking happens because we think too little).

I think I was particularly fascinated by this topic because I have experienced both types of failure in my life. As a music major, I performed frequently. Without fail, those times of high pressure would lead to me choking. All of a sudden, it was like I was reading this music for the first time...I couldn't remember what fingering I had used or where I went immediately after the page turn. It happened because I started overthinking instead of letting my hours of practicing easily carry me through. Likewise, as a mom, I've had moments of panic where one of my children has been hurt or momentarily lost, and I revert to freezing in total confusion. One time Max darted out into the street a few feet in front of a (slowly) moving car. I can remember watching in helpless shock...I didn't run, and even my scream was slow in coming out. It is just so interesting to look at these two very different instances and see that what made me fail in both cases wasn't the same reaction, but two very different reactions.

As another example, in the essay, "The New-Boy Network," Gladwell explores the idea of first impressions and just how much we can really gather from our first meeting of an individual. I found his research absolutely fascinating, mainly because in the end, he concluded that it is very hard to get a good grasp on a person's personality or character in fifteen or thirty minutes. In my own life, I have definitely had some first impressions go completely awry in both good and bad ways. For example, when I first met one of my sisters-in-law (I have nine, so I feel pretty safe with this staying anonymous), I didn't like her at all. I thought we were extremely different and found her hard to be around. But now? She is one of my best friends, and I could talk to her for hours. Contrast that with someone in my neighborhood. The first time I saw her, I thought, I hope I get to know her better. She seems like she is just my type. Now, years later, I could not have been more wrong! Even though we are congenial acquaintances, our personalities and interests are completely different. These experiences, plus reading the research behind it, have made me much more careful about judging others.

Finally, I loved the essay about late bloomers. Gladwell talked about those who come into their talent a little bit later in life...or maybe they started out doing one thing and then decided something else was calling more loudly. It was inspiring to read about people who weren't successful until they were fifty or sixty. Sometimes I worry that I've already explored the talents I have and that at 27, I'm stuck with my initial decisions. But I'm not. I still have a long life to live, and there are any number of possibilities left to discover. That's exciting.

These were some of the essays that I liked and which have really left me thinking. But if these topics sound incredibly boring to you, don't let that dissuade you...there's still hair dye, pit bulls, ketchup, or many other subjects that will make you think outside the box.


  1. Great review. But I'm still stuck on the fact you have so many relatives willing to do this. I'm sooo jealous. What fun!

  2. Have you ever watched or heard Gladwell speak? (He has a TED talk that I love). He is just so interesting in person! FYI: I got the audio of Quiet started the other day, and I have to say it isn't sitting so well with me. I'm just barely in, though, so I'm going to give it a chance. I can't tell if it's the reader or what. I'll look forward to your full review.


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