13 December 2009

Malcolm Gladwell book signing

I happened to visit Barnes and Nobles, for the purposes of killing some time and I stumbled upon a special book launch and signing event, featuring Malcolm Gladwell. He just released a collection of his essays called What the Dog Saw.

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers, stylistically. He picks interesting topics, tries to find unusual perspectives on them, and writes with an engaging, scientific-curious voice. I'm not a huge fan of his full-length books as they seem to cover too broad a scope, seem disjointed, and lack well-written conclusions. However, I enjoy many of his New Yorker essays.

Gladwell decided to entertain the audience with a humorous recollection of Taro the dog. When he was a beginning journalist, he became the New York area correspondent for the Washingtonian. He got the job because he was the only applicant. As time went on, he realized that no one cared about his stories. They were never picked up. Out of frustration, Gladwell decided he would only write stories about Bergen County, New Jersey, which was near Manhattan. For a short period of time, he only read the news coming out of Bergen County and had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world.

Gladwell said that in retrospect, Bergen County was a good choice because it was as if all the crazy people from the Bronx had moved there. The county had a fragmented political system, with many tiny municipal governments. For example, there were many school districts containing only fifty students. Parents would get nervous that one district was better than their own, so they would fake addresses to get their kids into that district. Consequently, the school districts hired detectives who would spy on the routes that the parents drove when they dropped their kids off.

Eventually, Gladwell had his breakout story. Taro was a 110 pound Akita. Her owner's 9 year old granddaughter got up at night to use the bathroom and accidentally tripped over Taro's slumbering mass. Taro reacted by biting her lip. New Jersey has strict laws about dogs and this act of violence landed Taro in "doggy death row." But that wasn't the end of the story. This incident resulted in five lawsuits. Gladwell proceeded to read various funny quotes from people involved in the case. One lawyer claimed that this case was basically one of the most important ones he had undertaken in his career. The owner said that the cut on her granddaughter's lip was not a big deal. Some lipstick would cover it up or plastic surgery could remove it.

During his investigative reporting, Gladwell went to New Jersey's "doggy death row." He was not allowed to see Taro, which shows that doggy death row is even more strict than human death row. He then drove around to the bag of the building. The prison was separated from him by a deep ravine and he could see barbed wire surrounding the kennel. He (or possibly the owner) shouted Taro's nickname "T" and then Taro appeared from a distance and began barking. Since Gladwell was unable to "meet" Taro in person, he decided to "interview" Taro's mother. In the short time that he had, he was unable to determine if Taro's mother was simply neurotic or if the owner had caused her to become this way.

Gladwell's story was picked up by the New York Post, with the title "Death Row Dog." The public outcry over Taro led to her being pardoned by the New Jersey governor.

After the Taro dog story, Gladwell entertained 20 minutes of questions from the audience. One person asked him to describe his thought-process / workflow for writing a story. Gladwell didn't have any specific formula. He said that you should write about a topic that excites/provokes you, in his words, a topic that "puts a bee under you bonnet." He added that most of his stories are quite long (e.g. his New Yorker essays), so he finds it necessary to include a B-plot. Another person asked him who his favorite authors were and how many books he read a month. Gladwell said he admired Michael Lewis, especially his book Blind Side. Gladwell called Blind Side the "perfect" book. He reads parts of 20 books a month which he said is not "very impressive" considering that it's his job. The final question was somewhat provocative. A man asked (paraphrase) "Do you think that given enough time, anyone can find a way to argue any viewpoint?" The author's response was that yes, he looks at ideas on the fringe of conventional wisdom, but his goal is only to engage the audience, not to persuade or force his opinions on people.

The the hour was up and the book signing began. I estimate that 2/3 of the audience (including me) left. I thought about getting a book signed and putting it on Ebay but since so many people left, I thought that the market for a Malcolm Gladwell probably wasn't that large.


  1. Thanks for the blog & the Taro story. I found this after Gladwell appeared on the "Colbert Report" on Dec 11, 2012 and mentioned the Akita.

  2. Same here - story was mentioned on Colbert and wanted to know more about the dog. Thanks for sharing.