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  • A.K. Lee

Book Review| David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. [...] And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong. - Malcolm Gladwell

I picked up the book because I enjoyed Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, especially the breezy yet insightful approach Gladwell takes in tackling big ideas. Hence, when I saw this on sale at my local secondhand book store, I decided to snatch it up before someone else got a great bargain. (I am a terrible spender when I get into a secondhand bookstore. It's an affliction.)

The book is divided into three sections. The first part is about the way we perceive advantages and disadvantages, and why our perception may be erroneous. The beginning is much as I expected: light, incisive, intriguing. Gladwell has a perspective of the world that seems to come from looking at an event or phenomenon sideways and thinking, "Is that really how it happened?"

Part two talks about how difficulty can become something desirable. Here, I liked Gladwell's point about disagreeable people being the ones to inflict change on the status quo. Disagreeable people, he argues, are the ones who simply disregard society's views of them, or ignore any need for approval, and go about doing what they wish to do.

Imagine my surprise when I physically had to set the book down when it got to the second part.

Much of what made this book heavy reading was in the recounting of people's struggles. In the second part, Gladwell shares stories about Emil "Jay" Freireich, and how he took on children's leukemia. The tales of his battles to save desperately sick children shook me. Would I have been able to hold them down while they screamed and cried, and jab thick needles into their thin legs? Would I have been able to look death in the eye day after day after day and still keep going? I had to walk away for a bit. It was too much to envision.

I picked up the book again... to move on to the next chapter about Wyatt Walker. And in the few pages that Gladwell wrote about the beatings and the abuse heaped on black people for challenging the status quo... Again I had to set down the book and walk away. If I had read this in better times, maybe it would not have been so affecting. Yet, even as I was reading how Walker chose his battles and who he sent out as the soldiers for the movement, I think about Black Lives Matter and the countless dead for the simple crime of not being white.

The last part talks about the limits of power. I think this section is the weakest part of Gladwell's book, even as it has the strongest stories. Perhaps he had been too emotionally compromised by what he had researched to truly dig into the sinews of how Goliath (state power) couldn't overcome the Davids of resistance. I know that I can't recall what Gladwell said about state power. I remember the stories, and the brazen courage of the people who chose to stand against those who would put them down. The Troubles of Northern Ireland starts off the third section of the book, and it closes with a story of a small French town that sheltered Jews despite the might of the Nazis.

And this time, when I closed the book and set it aside, I had a good cry. It seems like we are heading towards an age when all the Davids of the world have to be ready to stand against the Goliaths of hatred, of fascism, of ignorance. I'm not sure that there are enough Davids in the world to do this.

It was the marginal and the damaged [who took in the Jews in France], which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish.

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