Book Review: “David and Goliath” (Malcolm Gladwell)

After we drop Anna off for her dance class on Monday nights, we head over to the library to pick up some new books for both of our girls. This past week I noticed Malcom Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath on the “new arrivals” shelf staring at me. I interpreted this “stare” as more of a dare – the book was saying, essentially, “I dare you to pick me up and read me!” I have not read any of Gladwell’s other popular books (Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point) even though I have heard from numerous people that they were superb. I made a quick choice that evening and dumped the book into the pile of other books were planning to check out that evening.

About the Author

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, where he has been under contract since 1996. He is also a popular speaker (after publishing several best-sellers), delivering speeches at various venues throughout the United States. You can find out more about him and his writing at

My Expectations

I had high hopes as I began reading this book. Amazon reviewers have given it 4 out of 5 stars, which caused me to assume that I would get my money’s worth (yes I know it was free to check out but I sacrificed a good 3 hours of my precious time reading it). Boy, was I disappointed. Apart from the first chapter about David and Goliath, I was not at all impressed. The writing did not flow and Gladwell’s premise was not argued well. There were times I thought about putting the book down and walking away for good. But, after hearing how great his other books were I thought maybe, just maybe I had hit a rough spot. I wish this had been true!

Book Overview

The book is divided into three sections:

1. The Advantages of Disadvantages (and Disadvantages of Advantages)

The premise of this section is that our strengths are not necessarily strengths and our weaknesses are not necessarily weaknesses. Gladwell focused on different people and their strengths/weaknesses. He used their failures to demonstrate that their perceived strength actually turned out to be a weakness (Goliath’s size was likely due to a medical condition that caused him to have difficulty seeing beyond a few feet). The opposite is also true according to Gladwell; perceived weaknesses can often be strengths (numerous people with learning disabilities have succeeded precisely because of those perceived disabilities).

2. The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

In this section, Gladwell examined the lives of people who have grown up in difficult situations (abusive childhood or loss of a parent at an early age) and yet done extremely well. One interesting fact mentioned by Gladwell is that 12 out of our 44 Presidents lost their father early in their childhood. He argued that this difficulty was instrumental in preparing them for their job as President. Gladwell also claimed that the revolving door of difficult circumstances experienced by African Americans, before and during the Civil Rights Movement, actually enabled them to persevere through these difficulties.

3. The Limits of Power

In the final section of the book, Gladwell examined how power can be a weakness. He used several stories to highlight this point. The first is the story of how the British army, who were more resourced and had more weapons, soldiers and military experience, struggled against a weaker army/people in Northern Ireland. He also relayed the story of the Huguenots’ resistance against the Nazi controlled government in France. Even though they were outmanned and outgunned, they still succeeded in resisting the oppressive government.

My Review

First, let me say that I struggled with the man-centered focus surrounding the biblical story of David and Goliath. We have all heard sermons preached from this text that focus on “slaying the giants in our life.” I am convinced this is not the point of the story. If me saying this puzzles you, take some time to watch Matt Chandler’s sermon on the glory of God. I recognize that this biblical story served as as a great backdrop to discuss what Gladwell wanted to discuss but I hate to see this story ripped out of its biblical context.

As I mentioned above, I thought Gladwell’s writing style was choppy and difficult to read. Several other reviewers mentioned this same thing but noted that his other books were not like this. With my reading time as limited as it is, I doubt I will pick up another one of his books. I was just not impressed.

Ok. Being the history nerd that I am, I did enjoy the historical stories that were used throughout the book and that may be its greatest strength. I wish my first experience reading Malcolm Gladwell would have gone better!