email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Falling KnifeA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesADHD NationAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Forever MaybeAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAsymmetryBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDead Little Mean GirlDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDon't Wake UpDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily and Other CatastrophesFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlFlat Lake in WinterForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGood and GoneGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am I Am I AmI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Knife CreekLeaping BeautyLie to MeLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLosers BracketLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade for LoveMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNot a Crime to Be PoorNothingNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOdd Child OutOh My GothOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalReleaseRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSinlessSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySleepyheadSnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSycamoreSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe ArrangementThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe ChemistThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe End of Our StoryThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe Family GeneThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Fortunate OnesThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe Perfect GirlThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe SharkThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Summer ChildrenThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe VegetarianThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whiz Mob and the Grenadine KidThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch ElmThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThings You Didnt SeeThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWays to Die in GlasgowWe Are OkayWhat the Dog SawWhen My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Know Me WellYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
Everyone likes a good story, and Gladwell tells us what it is in What the Dog Saw, a compilation of articles written for The New Yorker. He does not reveal the recipe of a 'good narrative' by lecturing his audience in a PowerPoint format on its ingredients and on the virtue of their carefully timed mixing, but rather he offers practical illustrations that unveil his skills as a writer. Most and foremost, Gladwell places himself in the shoes of a hypothetical reader who may be vaguely familiar with a specific subject matter (e.g., marketing of food products such as tomato sauce, the nature of criminal profiling, the workings of the stock market, etc.). He then asks himself a question that is central to the selected subject matter and for which an answer is not readily available without a substantial expertise. Since it is understood that both the reader and the writer lack the expertise to answer this critical question, Gladwell does what the reader expects him to do: he consults the experts. Here, the reader receives the opportunity to encounter characters that are as real as his/her neighbors and whose intellectual life and actions are as transparent as those that might belong to a long-time friend. More often than not, Gladwell uses the experts' testimonies to make explicit and then attack widespread beliefs that he demonstrates to be ostensibly false. The artful combination of the experts' points of view and background information regarding both subject matter and experts creates a timeline of discovery that demands the reader's attention. Generally, at some unexpected point in the author's narrative, an answer materializes in the form of a rather general statement to the question that motivated the narratives (e.g., How is a food product such as tomato sauce or ketchup developed and marketed to the American public?). These general statements open a window into the minds of participants and spectators alike. Some generalizations are so trite to be uncontroversial such as 'there is no one tomato sauce or one type of ketchup that can be marketed to all, but rather food products with slightly different combinations of ingredients that are appreciated by different audiences. Other generalizations, however, minimize aspects of a phenomenon (e.g., the benefits and costs of detection or prediction of a certain outcome) that some may consider critical to the understanding of the phenomenon (e.g., detection of weaponry from satellite views or prediction of performance). Thus, while generalizations feed the mind with certainties, inducing comforting thoughts, some become the object of controversy.
One recent review of Gladwell's narratives describes them as containing inaccuracies (NYT, November 15, 2009), stemming mainly from generalizations that the writer makes regarding the information provided by his interviewees or that the interviewees themselves make. Yet if one accepts Gladwell's premise that 'good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head', then what some experts consider stretched or crude generalizations of the evidence may not necessarily detract from the value of the author's narratives. Rather, they are means by which the author challenges the reader, making him/her want to go beyond the information given and question it. If a reader does not question the statements made by the author, then the text has failed to reach the goal that the author has set for his work. Of course, the source of this failure is in itself an interesting conundrum, one that deserves consideration as it refers to the expectations and standards of a particular readership. It also deserves consideration as it pertains to the challenges inherent to the task of illustrating the complexity of a phenomenon. In research involving the observation or manipulation of multiple factors, these challenges are well know. Selecting factors that are critical to an event and understanding how they interact with each other are not at all simple tasks, as the addition or the removal of one factor can considerably change any preexisting view of the phenomenon under study.
Notwithstanding audience-specific failures and the challenges of illustrating complexity in its different manifestations, an uncontroversial fact is that one of the most remarkable abilities of Gladwell, the writer, is that even readers who may not be initially interested in a subject matter are likely to want to know more about it after having read a few paragraphs of his writings. Gladwell's narratives appear instinctively to demand undivided attention and instill the desire to explore topics/issues that readers may otherwise overlook or consider worthy objects of examination in that neverland time of 'later'. His storylines, as much as PBS shows such as The Secrets of the Dead and History Detectors, fall into the sought-after class of intrinsically delightful learning activities (at least for me). To what can we attribute this response? Perhaps the reader's interest results from the transparency with which a subject matter is presented and/or the sophistication of the mind of the experts Gladwell selects. Interest may also result from the format of Gladwell's stories, resembling that of a jigsaw puzzle that someone may have bought some time ago and then abandoned in the attic of the reader's house. The numerous pieces appear to be intact, but the box with the solution is missing. Some initial curiosity in seeing the puzzle completed may exist, but the sheer number of pieces and time constraints appear to endorse the selection of alternative activities. Gladwell guides the undecided finder (i.e., reader), generating a powerful argument that his/her initial interest is to be satisfied. He does so by combining some pieces, the most critical ones, making the partial figure that is placed in front of the reader so compelling and intriguing that now attention is securely captured. Gladwell then adds skillfully and methodically most of the other pieces together; and by doing so, he satisfies in a piecemeal fashion the reader's demand to know. Yet the jigsaw puzzle never seems to be entirely finished. As attention is devoted to the developing picture, some areas of the puzzle appear to require more pieces than are actually available. Similarly, in Gladwell's narratives, collected evidence and answers are never terminal but rather generative of further inquiries.
Critics have said that in What the Dog Saw, no overriding theme exists, but merely a string of stories without a serious thematic connection. Yet all narratives included in What the Dog Saw share a main theme: the human mind and some of the most arduous to study qualities such as intuitiveness, swiftness, etc. Gladwell selects a diverse array of everyday experiences where practical applications of human cognition can be examined, and then he uses such experiences to ask important questions regarding the workings of the human mind. He goes so far as examining the cognition of dogs and the way that successful dog training depends critically on the human mind's ability to understand the operating principles of dogs' minds. Of course, the specific everyday experiences Gladwell selects are quite dissimilar, from decision-making in the stock market to the nature of successful dog training and advertizing campaigns. He focuses on equally diverse characters whose expertise is made discernible to the reader with plain testimonials of their thoughts and actions. The variety of Gladwell's inquiries may appear to some readers the mere byproduct of his desire to make his inquiries interesting to a broad audience. Yet they are the necessary condition for exploring the human mind whose diverse functioning can be fully understood only by examining the multitude of its applications. A keen observer of social sciences, Gladwell knows this fact well, notwithstanding all generalizations that may have rattled some of his readers.
© 2009 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York