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Gladwell's 'David and Goliath' cheers on underdogs

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:21 p.m.

Here are some facts to chew on: About one in three highly successful entrepreneurs — including the founders of JetBlue, Charles Schwab and Kinkos — is dyslexic.

Two-thirds of British prime ministers at the peak of the empire, and almost a third of all U.S. presidents, lost a parent when they were children.

These are among the arguments for unexpected sources of strength that Malcolm Gladwell explores in his new book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker whose previous books include “Blink,” “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers,” has made it his specialty to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom.

In “David and Goliath,” Gladwell argues that sometimes what we think of as disadvantages can work in our favor. He puts this theory to test with stories of an underdog girls' basketball team that makes it to the nationals; various school class-size experiments; and the Big Fish-Little Pond Effect (in short: your little genius is better off at a regular university than at an Ivy League school).

One of the most famous trial lawyers in the country — who argued in front of the Supreme Court for Bush vs. Gore, the Microsoft antitrust case and the overturning of California's ban on same-sex marriage — is David Boies, who has dyslexia. To get around his difficulty with reading, he developed extremely good listening skills and a formidable memory, Gladwell writes.

There are, of course, plenty of people who lost a parent when they were young, or who have dyslexia, “who are crushed by what they have been through,” Gladwell acknowledges. “There are times and places, however, when all of us depend on people who have been hardened by their experiences.”

One of the book's most memorable characters is Emil “Jay” Freireich, a volcanic, intimidating physician — fired seven times throughout his career — who played a pivotal role in the treatment of childhood leukemia. Gladwell, after taking readers through Freireich's tragic early years, notes: “He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.”

The book fizzles out in its final section, which reads more like a history book and is devoid of the sharp commentary and compelling observations that make the earlier sections such a pleasure to read. Still, the weak ending doesn't erase the many dinner-conversation takeaways a reader finds in Gladwell's latest attempt to make us look beyond the surface.

Rasha Madkour is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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