It’s been years since I’ve completed a book. My goal for the holidays was to get through three. The holidays have been over for three weeks and I’ve only just finished one of the two books I started. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants was a holiday present to my boss. It arrived with a card while she was already home on her holiday vacation, so I started reading it. I was drawn to the subtitle. I am an underdog and every obstacle I’ve overcome in life has been one no one even considered I could come close to approaching, let alone overcoming. This was my first Malcolm Gladwell book and I must say, he has interesting concepts and tells a good story. Here’s my book report.
Gladwell breaks the book up into three parts:
- The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages)
- The Theory of Desirable Difficulty
- The Limit of Power
Quite honestly, I almost gave up on the book in the first chapter. Gladwell re-imagines the fight between David and Goliath, which is fine, in and of itself. I do a lot of re-imagining when I write too – that’s where the magic happens. However, his re-imagining was part history lesson (somewhat believable) and part television reenactment with modern-day expert commentary (not at all believable). He writes about how skilled David was with his sling and how all the soldiers of the day would have recognized the sling-thrower as an able and fearsome combatant. The way the Bible describes David’s reception at the army camp of King Saul, suggests plainly that he himself, and his weapon of choice, were not respected at all. In fact, King Saul tried to give David a sword and his heavy armor. David wasn’t comfortable with such and said he’d battle the giant with his sling and pebbles and he could do it because he had taken down a bear and lion with the same (1 Samuel 17:34-37).
Unfortunately, the revisionism didn’t stop there. Gladwell writes that “many medical experts now believe… that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly – a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary glands. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size…. And furthermore, one of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems.” Gladwell goes on to claim the reason David was able to run towards Goliath and get off a perfect hit with his sling was because Goliath was blind! He couldn’t see David coming. And because he couldn’t see David coming, he was slow to defend himself.
Truly, sometimes it’s best to just read what the story says and not add anything to it (1 Samuel 17). For indeed, if David had been seen as a fearsome combatant who was a deadly master slinger, what would be the value of the story of David and Goliath? If Goliath was a blind swordsman, would an entire army truly have feared him (1 Samuel 17:4-7)? More than that – would his king have made him the champion of their nation? Probably not.
I managed to get through the first chapter which, in my opinion, made a mockery of faith by trying to explain it with “scientific” assumptions.
The rest of the stories in the book were new to me. Each chapter focused on one person and the huge way they succeeded in the world despite, or because of, their disadvantages. These stories are intriguing and for that reason, I am glad I stuck with the book to the end. I can’t say that I learned anything new about advantages or disadvantages (I reached similar conclusions long ago based on my own experiences), but the stories reconfirmed that all the challenges in my own life have been blessings. Certainly, in the short-term, pain does not feel like a blessing. But the way you process your pain and build from it over time, strengthens you and adds wisdom and insight that you otherwise would not have. In one chapter, Gladwell points out a correlation between the high achievement of world leaders (British prime ministers and American presidents) and the number of them who lost a parent to death during their youth (under age 20). He explores the same correlation with famous poets and writers. To that end, the passage that struck the deepest chord with me is a quote from Pastor André Trocmé as he recalls losing his mother in a car accident as a child:
If I have sinned so much, if I have been, since then, so solitary, if my soul has taken such a swirling and solitary movement, if I have doubted everything, if I have been a fatalist, and have been a pessimistic child who awaits death every day, and who almost seeks it out, if I have opened myself slowly and late to happiness, and if I am still a somber man, incapable of laughing whole-heartedly, it is because you left me that June 24th upon that road.
But if I have believed in eternal realities…if I have thrust myself toward them, it is also because I was alone, because you were no longer there to be my God, to fill my heart with your abundant and dominating life.
And later, when his eldest son committed suicide:
Even today I carry a death within myself, the death of my son, and I am like a decapitated pine. Pine trees do not regenerate their tops. They stay twisted, crippled…. They grow in thickness, perhaps, and that is what I am doing.
Overall, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is a good read. It makes you think about the world as it is and how it formed from what it was. It openly discusses socially acceptable situations that are morally reprehensible and that were overcome in morally compromising ways. But those who overcame did not see themselves as morally ambiguous. For that reason, this book makes you think: if I want to change my world (or something in the world or my life) today, is anything too radical for me to do?