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Saturday, October 8, 2016

DAVID and GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, and the ART of BATTLING GIANTS (audiobook) by Malcolm Gladwell

Published by Hachette Audio in October of 2013.
Read by the author, Malcolm Gladwell.

Duration: 7 hours

Malcolm Gladwell has made his reputation by writing insightful articles in which you thoroughly learn about one thing but also how it applies to a larger concept.  Usually, there's a little light science involved and, if nothing else, the reader (or in my case, the listener) feels like he or she learned a little bit and heard an interesting story.

In this case, the premise is that in the David vs. Goliath stories, the underdog is not always as much of an underdog as it seems. He starts with the original David vs. Goliath story - the one in the Old Testament of the Bible and explains that Goliath clearly had size and strength going for him but those weren't all-pervading advantages. Goliath was strong and large but his strength made him reliant on the sword and close-in fighting. If an enemy got close to him and if Goliath got hold of him, Goliath would win. But, David was quick, small and used a sling. One commentator he quotes compares a skilled sling-user to a person using a pistol. David stands back, takes his shot, knocks down Goliath and then Goliath's strengths are all weaknesses. His size and armor makes it hard for him to get up. David rushes in and finishes Goliath.

Malcolm Gladwell in 2014.
Photo by Kris Krug.
Gladwell takes the lessons of the original story ("There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.") and applies them to other situations. Some of them are natural fits (the entertaining and inspiring story of the girl's basketball team with not a lot of talent but a whole lot of grit and the willingness to play full court defense), some not so much (education, learning disabilities, family tragedies).

But, even if the theme is imperfect throughout the book, the book itself is interesting throughout. His commentary on education and class size was interesting to this public school teacher. The conventional wisdom is that smaller is better, and it is to the point of diminishing returns. But, there is a competing conventional wisdom that says "class size does not matter." In my school system one of our assistant superintendents was fond of quoting that as she advocated for ever larger class sizes as a way to save money. It turns out they are both right. Too small (maybe 10 or 12) and the class dynamic gets weird, something I already knew from experience. Too large and the class gets unwieldy and the class dynamic changes from interactivity to college large class lecture format (near 40). I have had classes that large as well. They are tiring and the grading gets overwhelming. Plus, no one gets any sort of attention except for the troublemakers.

There's a lot of ground covered in just 7 hours and I found the whole book very entertaining. He talks about everything from the London Blitz to serial killers to the Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham in the 1960s to Leukemia. It's all interesting and I felt as though I were listening to a knowledgeable friend ramble on about vaguely related but highly interesting topics. Gladwell does a great job at narration.

The commentary about the perceived legitimacy of police forces in comparison with the British in Northern Ireland and the NYPD in a troubled neighborhood makes that section a must-read when thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States right now. 

Highly recommended.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

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