Battling Giants: Reading Malcolm Gladwell and Rethinking Underdogs

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Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, is released today, and he’s once again challenging our preconceptions — not only of the scriptural story of the shepherd and the giant, but of the whole idea of the underdog, a character that we Americans especially cherish.

Gladwell knows we love a good underdog story (clearly, he does, too), but he says we’re learning the wrong lessons. David won not just because he was willing to step forward, and not just because he believed God would protect him (although that, of course, was part of it). He won because he broke the rules. He defied convention. The deck was stacked against him, so he played the game differently. To Gladwell, the moral of a victorious misfit story like David’s is not to go forth armed only with faith and courage, but to change the way you fight the battle — for an underdog to win, he must be unconventional.

David and Goliath has all of Gladwell’s hallmarks, of course: He tells counterintuitive stories. He wows us with statistics. He even gives us a new way to graph* (this time it’s a U-curve instead of a Tipping Point). By now, he’s a master at that — but that’s not really why I read his books. I love that he finds untold stories and brings them to light, and I love that he takes stories we’ve heard over and over and challenges the way we understand them. Is he always right? Probably not. But getting the right answer is not really the point of reading, is it? The point of books is that they make us think — and Gladwell never fails to do that.

The traditional understanding of David and Goliath isn’t the only moral to take a hit. Gladwell also takes a hard look at California’s Three Strikes law, the reason for the IRA, and the way we play basketball. He also spends a chapter here in Birmingham, examining the Civil Rights movement and getting to the heart of how disenfranchised, downtrodden, and abused men and women changed the world, and changed this city in particular. Reading that story while I sat in downtown Birmingham was particularly moving.

Gladwell is fun because he’s a good storyteller with a rare knack for making statistics fascinating. But this book is particularly empowering because it reminds us that all giants have weaknesses, and that we all have the power, and maybe even the responsibility, to try our hand at defeating them. To do that, we have to be brave — and we also have to be creative, to be bold, and to find new ways to fight.

Carrie Rollwagen in co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books in Birmingham, Alabama.

* I realize this is probably not actually a new way to graph. But I took statistics in the last century, so I don’t remember it.

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