What the Dog Saw (2009) by Malcolm Gladwell is a fine collection of essays that have been in the New Yorker. Gladwell is a superb essayist. His essays may not be deeply insightful and their conclusions may not be correct but they are thought provoking and fun to read.
The book is divided into three parts. The first; Obsessives, Pioneers and Other Varieties of Minor Genius, concerns profiles of people. The Second; Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses and Part 3; Personality, Character and Intelligence.
Gladwell’s books where he has taken a theme of a single essay and lengthened it have been criticized as being trite and poorly researched. They may well be. But an essay with a similar idea and level of research is often very good. Gladwell is not the only author who does this. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel is a long essay worth of ideas stretched into a book.
Gladwell puts forward some very interesting points such as why there are a myriad of mustards while there are fewer ketcups. He profiles some fascinating people including Nassim Taleb. Open Secrets, an essay on how much too much information can cause poor decisions is a brilliant piece that combines Enron and the question of getting military intelligence into one essay. His essay on Plagiarism is also really fine. Gladwell’s look at Panic and Choking, which he frames as being thinking too little and thinking too much respectively is also illuminating.
The final collection of essays on Personality, Character and Intelligence includes a great essay on genius and an essay looking at how to hire people for different jobs. Gladwell even looks at the idea that Talent is over rated and may have contributed to the fall of Enron. He also looks at how there are some jobs such as CEO and quarterback for a pro American Football team where who succeeds has not been at all well predicted. In both cases pay and performance are not correlated.
Gladwell isn’t a deep writer but he is a really good essayist. This collection of essays is very much worth reading.