Malcolm Gladwell has had quite a different career than might be expected from a mathematician’s son who grew up mainly in a Canadian Mennonite community. For at least a decade, he has been America’s most popular social-science journalist. His fifth book, however, ventures much farther than his previous ones into political, historical, and religious matters, in its exploration of the meaning of the Biblical story of David’s triumph over the Philistine champion. This venture proves a distinct problem.
The dominance of the social sciences in our thinking is too great, if you ask me; we’re too used to being told where we need to go in our lives, and how to get there, and we’re too used to complying. But often the priesthood of expertise is quite limited, serving cults of success, fame, wealth, beauty, youth, fitness, or shopping, cults that don’t impinge much on serious people’s lives; and it can be great to have a guide to the shrines who is a believer, an insider, who has the priests’ confidence and so can tell us what’s going on. (I’ve found Gladwell’s past meditations on, for example, how hair coloring and small kitchen appliances are marketed useful and entertaining.) But when, as in this new book, the priesthood’s vehicles (the slogan, the arresting image, the statistical surprise, and so on) run up against civilization — that deeper, more solid structure on which humanity either depends or impales itself — then the clank and rattle are loud and disturbing.