What the Dog Saw
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell delves into everything from Enron to 9/11 to pit bulls.
A collection of pieces Malcolm Gladwell has written for The New Yorker magazine since 1996, titled What the Dog Saw, is a mixed bag of quirky profiles; thoughtful and contrarian analyses of commonly embraced theories, such as the belief that Americaâ€™s intelligence services could easily have â€śconnected the dotsâ€ť and foiled the 9/11 attacks; and predictions people make (about crime, job applicants, pets) that may seem reasonable at first glance, but which arenâ€™t grounded in Gladwellian reality.
The author, who wrote â€śThe Tipping Pointâ€ť and two other bestselling books, examines, for example, whether pit bulls are inherently dangerous. (Not particularly, unless we humans put them up to it.)
Then thereâ€™s the â€śKetchup Conundrum.â€ť Ever wonder why ketchup is just plain ketchup, while mustard, which once was just plain yellow mustard, has morphed into Grey Poupon and myriad other shades, textures, and flavors? Wonder no more: Gladwell is on the case, having delved in great detail into the five fundamental tastes in the human palate, not to mention the arcane nooks and crannies of food marketing. The author also tackles Enronâ€™s collapse, whether novice pilot John F. Kennedy Jr. choked or panicked (thereâ€™s a big difference), and why pictures sometimes lie.
In his preface, Gladwell confesses that his first career choice was advertising, and it shows. â€śThe Pitchman,â€ť which won a National Magazine Award, is a delightfully rich account of the immigrant American clan who concocted and sold such household icons as the Veg-O-Matic and the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie.
In another market-driven piece, the author follows the careers of women who had a powerful impact on both what we bought and how we thought about ourselves. In the 1950s, copywriter Shirley Polykoff penned this memorable line for Clairolâ€™s Nice â€™n Easy hair-coloring brand: â€śDoes she or doesnâ€™t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.â€ťÂ When the ad debuted, 7 percent of American women dyed their hair. By the 1970s, when Ilon Specht wrote the more assertive â€śBecause Iâ€™m worth itâ€ť tag line for Preference by Lâ€™OrĂ©al, 40 percent of females were coloring.
At times, Gladwell works too hard at being the devilâ€™s advocate. In â€śOpen Secretsâ€ť he doesnâ€™t exonerate Enron exactly, but he points out that the companyâ€™s deteriorating condition could have been deduced from a careful reading of its quarterly filings and other public documents â€“ and that in 1998 a group of six business students at Cornell University did just that. They posted their report on the schoolâ€™s website. So was Enron really hiding anything? Gladwell seems to be implying that too much information is not always useful. Yet he neglects to emphasize that top company officials were asserting right up to the implosion that all was hunky-dory, small print notwithstanding.
Likewise, Gladwell goes to great lengths to let Americaâ€™s intelligence services off the hook for not â€śconnecting the dotsâ€ť that led to 9/11. Intelligence failures are a dime a dozen, and he cites several. One wonders from his relentless advocacy why we would bother having an FBI and a CIA at all given the vagaries of sleuthing.
When he avoids pontificating, Gladwell is at his best. His profile of â€śdog whispererâ€ť Cesar Millan mesmerizes, even though he describes his subject as being â€śbuilt like a soccer playerâ€ť â€“ as if all are made from the same mold.
David Holohan is a freelance writer in East Haddam, Conn.