What the Dog Saw (Little, Brown and Company; 2009), presents nineteen brilliantly researched and provocative essays that exhibit the curiosity his readers love, each with a graceful narrative that leads to a thought-provoking analysis. The explorations here delve into subjects as varied as why some people choke while others panic; how changes meant to make a situation safer — like childproof lids on medicine — don’t help because people often compensate with more reckless behavior; and the idea that genius is inextricably tied up with precocity.
“You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world,” writes Gladwell in the preface to What the Dog Saw. In each piece, he offers a glimpse into the minds of a startling array of fascinating characters. “We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor,” he insists, rather than what doctors do every day, because “Curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses.” Like no other writer today, Gladwell satisfies this impulse brilliantly, energizing and challenging his readers.
What the Dog Saw is organized thematically into three categories:
Part One contains stories about what Gladwell calls “minor geniuses,” people like Ron Popeil, the pitchman who by himself conceived, created, and sold the Showtime rotisserie oven to millions on TV, breaking every rule of the modern economy.
Part Two demonstrates theories, or ways of organizing experience. For example, “Million-Dollar Murray” explores the problem of homelessness — how to solve it, and whether solving it for the most extreme and costly cases makes sense as policy. In this particular piece, Gladwell looks at a controversial program that gives the chronic homeless the keys to their own apartments and access to special services while keeping less extreme cases on the street to manage on their own.
In Part Three, Gladwell examines the predictions we make about people. “How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?” he asks. He writes about how educators evaluate young teachers, how the FBI profiles criminals, how job interviewers form snap judgments. He is candid in his skepticism about these methods but fascinated by the various attempts to measure talent or personality.
Malcolm Gladwell selected the essays in What the Dog Saw himself, choosing the stories and ideas that have continued to fascinate and provoke readers long after their publication in The New Yorker. The book is an invaluable gift for his existing fans, and the ideal introduction for new readers.