Odds and Bods: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, Stiff by Mary Roach

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. From Amazon, “Beginning with the classic tale of David and Goliath and moving through history with figures such as Lawrence of Arabia and Martin Luther King Jr., Gladwell shows how, time and again, players labeled “underdog” use that status to their advantage and prevail through the elements of cunning and surprise.”

The book is, in essence, a string of feel-good anecdotes that make an easy point–that adversity (such as dyslexia, early loss of a parent etc.) spurs some to greatness while condemning others to struggle and failure. As always, Gladwell writes with such easy fluency that you’ll zip along as though reading a potboiler, but the premise is way too loose for a central thesis, and too slight to power this 320 page book.   And I found the whole argument problematic–by making it about individual effort, it diminishes the issue of institutional support for those who lack the ability or means or will to overcome overwhelmingly unfavorable odds. As for intellectual rigor, well, the author would sweep the podium were long jumps in logic an Olympic sport. The sweeping conclusions Gladwell draws from the slimmest of anecdotal evidence and reasons (with little or no proof) will leave you shaking your head as soon as you step off that well-oiled conveyor belt of a narrative.

Btw, have you visited the Malcolm Gladwell book generator? Here’s a sample:

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. I haven’t touched popular science writing in about a decade; my last attempt, if you must know, was pretending to appreciate Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought when I was dating my (now-) husband. Mary Roach (who writes for Salon and Wired, amongst other publications) has ended that dry spell. Stiff is a book about dead bodies, and it’s a charmer. A wide-ranging (if mostly West-oriented) exploration of our changing cultural and scientific narratives when dealing with cadavers, Roach analyzes issues and practises ranging from organ donation to embalming to cannibalism. The book is remarkably detailed (do not read this book while snacking) and livelier than you thought possible, irreverent but never disrespectful towards the dead.

Roach’s body of work includes books about the afterlife, sex, and digestion, in Spook, Bonk and Gulp respectively. Am I the only one who finds her titles sort of interchangeable?

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