What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Little, Brown & Company (2009)
In this volume, we have 19 of Gladwell’s best essays, all of which appeared in The New Yorker. They are organized within three Parts: Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius (e.g. “The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen”); Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses (e.g. “Million-Dollar Murray: Why Problems Like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve Than Manage”); and Personality, Character, and Intelligence (e.g. “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy”). In the Preface, Gladwell observes, “Curiosity about the inner life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.” He seems to have an insatiable curiosity about individuals, situations, and locations that are of little (if any) interest to most people…until Gladwell shares what he has learned about them.
Ketchup, for example. It is essential to my full enjoyment of burgers, meatloaf, and french fries and yet I had assumed that all ketchup is the same. Wrong! In “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Gladwell explains that tomato ketchup “is a nineteenth-century creation – the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in the late-nineteenth century condiments.” A debate about benzoate? Who cares? It is to Gladwell’s credit that he rewarded my continuing to read the article by providing some truly interesting information about a subject in which I had little (if any) prior interest.
But that is not true of the next article in the anthology, “Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster Into an Investment Strategy,” an article first published in 2002. I was already aware of what is now referred to as the Black Swan phenomenon. Over a period of many months, Gladwell spent a great deal of time with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder and CEO of a hedge fund, Empirica Capital. “Taleb likes to quote David Hume: ‘No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.’…[Taleb] has constructed a trading philosophy predicated entirely on the existence of black swans, on the possibilty of some random, unexpected event sweeping the markets. He never sells options, then. He only buys them. He’s never the one who can lose a great deal of money if GM stock suddenly plunges. Nor does her ever bet on the market moving in one direction or another. That would require Taleb to assume that he understands the market, and he doesn’t.” Years later, he wrote a book he called The Black Swan and during the subsequent financial crisis of 2008-2009 “made a staggering amount of money for his fund.” Once again, Gladwell captured and then sustained my attention when discussing a subject about which, previously, I knew very little and in which I had even less interest…other than a curiosity about black swans.
Each of the 19 articles is a gem. Having all of them assembled in a single volume is intellectual treasure…and a conversational feast.