From The Tipping Point (2000) onward, Malcolm Gladwell has made a specialty of gathering commonly accessible facts and viewing them from uncommon—and often surprising—perspectives. In David and Goliath, he seizes on the fable of the title to undergird his thesis that “the powerful are not as powerful as they seem—nor the weak as weak.” In his eyes, David had the edge over Goliath from the start, not just because he possessed a superior weapons system—the far-reaching sling vs. the short-range spear and sword—but also because he imposed his own rules of combat instead of conceding to Goliath’s.

Gladwell goes on to argue that conditions first seen as adverse or limiting can actually be turned into wellsprings of strength. Thus, large classes may be better for students than small ones; attending a top university may be the worst (or, at least, the most discouraging) educational choice; getting tougher on crime may actually increase crime as well as create other social disorders; being dyslexic or losing a parent at an early age may make one more persistent and intellectually agile than being able to read easily or having the comfort of a two-parent family; kids who don’t grow up playing basketball (for example) may approach the game in such fresh ways that they outscore kids who do; and people who are confronted en masse by life-threatening dangers—whether it be the bombing of London in World War II, the violent suppression of Civil Rights demonstrations in the U.S. or the brutalizing of Catholics in Northern Ireland by British soldiers—will almost always be strengthened rather than weakened by their shared experience.

To support these points, Gladwell intersperses a series of inspiring personal stories with summaries of related scientific studies in education, economics, psychology and sociology. His tone is relentlessly upbeat, but he in no way contends that being poor, dyslexic and downtrodden is the best start in life for anyone. He does make the case, however, for mining the dross of life for those small specks of gold and for looking beyond the obvious to the actual.

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