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Reviews

David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants

Martin Wroe

Malcolm Gladwell

Allen Lane
320pp

 

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book is biblical. The title page features a quote from the first book of Samuel, the opening section begins with a verse from the Book of Proverbs, the next with verses from Paul's second letter to the Christians in Corinth.

The title itself, David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants leads the author into an extended exegesis of the biblical duel between Israelite shepherd boy and Philistine military hero. Unlike any preacher you've heard, Gladwell subverts your assumptions. 'David and Goliath has come to be embedded in our language as a metaphor for improbable victory,' he writes, rising in a typical Gladwellian crescendo. 'And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.'

Gladwell's method, widely imitated after the success of previous titles like The Tipping Point and Blink, is deep mining. He drills way down below the surface of multiple, obscure, apparently unrelated fields of research, returning to the surface with his findings and laying them out under the sun to see if he can piece them together in some coherent new whole. In this instance he digs into ancient near-eastern military technology, finding that a six foot nine inch tall soldier - in bronze helmet and body armour, bronze shin guards and feet plates, carrying a javelin, spear and sword, and preceded by an attendant carrying a large shield - may not have been quite as fit for purpose as legend has led us to believe. At least not fit to face an opponent like David who declines Saul's offer of a visit to a matching military outfitters. Having sown doubt about the giant's mobility, Gladwell then sows doubt about the shepherd boys naivety. The 'slinger', he says, was a crucial performer in the artillery section of ancient armies. 'An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards.' The heavy-metal Goliath anticipates a meeting with some equivalent lumbering infantry giant but the cunning shepherd is more interested in winning than honouring rituals of single combat. Racing towards Goliath, David spins the rock in his sling, targetting the Philistine's forehead. A ballistics expert calculates it will have landed at a deadly 34 metres per second. It turns out, Goliath didn't stand a chance: 'David was a slinger and slingers beat infantry hands down.'

Gladwell's technique is to undermine the way we think about one story, in order to undermine how we think about lots of stories. That's why the book is biblical, not because it quotes Bible verses but because, as he writes towards the end, 'The powerful are not as powerful as they seem, nor the weak as weak.' He mines business, film, education and medicine, he digs into civil war in Northern Ireland and the resistance movement in France, and all the while he returns to the surface with evidence to prove his central hunch. Ordinary people, everyday, are defeating 'giants of all kinds, from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune and oppression.'

He calls it 'the advantage of disadvantage' and expounds a theory of 'desirable difficulty'. Why are so many successful entrepreneurs dyslexic? Perhaps because the workarounds and survival mechanisms they employed as children provided special resources that good readers had no need of developing. How did a neglected son of broke and broken Hungarian immigrants to Chicago, raised in harrowing deprivation, come to transform the treatment of childhood leukaemia, saving thousands of lives? Perhaps because Jay Freireich's upbringing added to him unusual courage and subtracted normal levels of empathy. He embarked on apparently heartless experimental drug regimes on dying children, while appalled colleagues accused him of torturing patients.

It's not always in spite of disadvantage that we triumph, argues Gladwell, but because of it. Sometimes the disadvantage is desirable in how disagreeable someone becomes. Innovators and revolutionaries have a particular mix of personality traits. These include openness and conscientiousness, which society likes, and a certain disagreeableness, which society doesn't. But that dogged determination to swim against the flow comes from hardwon experience that impossible is not impossible. 'The beauty of the disagreeable,' as he writes of the Huguenot pastor Andre Trocme, sheltering Jews from the German occupation 'is that they do not make calculations like the rest of us'.

Sometimes they play by different rules, as he explores in a study of the notion of 'the trickster' in the civil rights movement. Gladwell depicts some black activist leaders as a little more disagreeable than history paints them. He tilts the halo of Martin Luther King for example before adding that it only looks tilted because of the eyes with which we are looking. 'Our definition of what is right is, as often as not, simply the way that people in positions of privilege close the door on those on the outside.'

If the way Gladwell popularises obscure research is persuasive, the reader is carried along by the force of his brilliant storytelling. Such is the pull of his narrative technique, you barely notice he has changed your mind. But you know his stories are good because - 'listen to this' - within minutes you're telling them to someone else. He marries the curiosity of a scientist with the diligence of an archaeologist. He is a writer of faith with a hunch that there are mysterious connections in the social fabric, hidden laws at play which one day we will all take for granted. Exploring retribution and forgiveness and the successful popular movement for a three-strikes-and-you're-out mechanism in the US criminal justice system, Gladwell persuades you of its merits - and then shows you how wrong you are.

'A man employs the full power of the state in his grief and ends up plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment. A woman who walks away from the promise of power finds the strength to forgive - and saves her friendship, her marriage and her sanity. The world is turned upside down.'