No one can doubt Gladwell’s ability to reach large audiences. The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers were all tremendous best-sellers, leading some to conclude that Gladwell has invented a new genre of popular writing. In David and Goliath, Gladwell again applies the formula that has been so successful in the past. Deploying a mixture of affecting narratives of struggle against the odds with carefully chosen academic papers, he contends that the powerless are more powerful than those who appear to wield much of the power in the world. To many, this may appear counterintuitive, he suggests; but by marshaling a variety of historical examples ranging from the American struggle for civil rights to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, leavened with homely tales of the trials and triumphs of basketball teams and fortified with forays into sociology and psychology, Gladwell thinks that he can persuade the reader to accept the difficult truth that the weak are not as weak as the reader imagines. If they play their cards right, they can prevail against the strong.
Why this should be thought a difficult view to accept is unclear. There is nothing remotely challenging, for most of Gladwell’s readers, in this story; it is the sort of uplift in which they already believe. The dominant narrative for the last three centuries has been one in which the power of elites and rulers is progressively overcome by the moral force of the common man and woman who sticks up for what is right. Far from being a forbidden truth, this is what everyone thinks. Here we can glimpse one of the secrets of Gladwell’s success. Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity.