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Originally published Friday, October 4, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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‘David and Goliath’: Malcolm Gladwell does it again

Author Malcolm Gladwell once again dispenses unconventional wisdom in “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Malcolm Gladwell

The author of “David and Goliath” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures; $15-$50, this event is sold out — a limited number of standby tickets may be available on a standby basis, first come, first served at 7:40 p.m. (206-621-2230 or www.lectures.org).

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In four best-selling books and scores of articles in The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell has specialized in dispensing unconventional wisdom. His engrossing new work, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (Little, Brown and Company, 320 pp., $29), his first book in nearly five years, is no exception.

Starting with a historical account of the ultimate against-the-odds tale — how David slew the giant — Gladwell presents an eclectic series of individuals battling formidable foes as a way to better understand life’s trials and conflicts, and to glean the benefit of facing giant challenges. “…The act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty,” the author notes.

Everyone loves an underdog, and Gladwell provides a treasure trove of unlikely heroes. He writes about a girls’ basketball team with little athletic skill or knowledge of the game, but uses an unconventional tactic — a full-court defense — to dominate their more experienced opponents. In other chapters, he questions assumptions that smaller class size improves learning, prestigious colleges provide the best education, or that dyslexia is an insurmountable roadblock.

On a larger, historical scale, he recounts the experiences of London residents thriving in the face of devastating German bombing raids during World War II; of people from a small town in France who defied the Nazis and the French authorities during the war; and of civil-rights protesters like Wyatt Walker, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who overcame the vitriolic hostility of majority whites in the heart of the Deep South.

Perhaps most fascinating is his account of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, where ordinary folks in minority Catholic neighborhoods went toe to toe with the mighty British Army.

In most cases, the people or institutions in power appear to hold a clear advantage with little or no hope for the “victims.” But as Gladwell points out, the imbalance of power does not deter the challengers, and in fact leads them to approach the conflict in unorthodox ways.

“The British came to Northern Ireland with the best of intentions and ended up in the middle of thirty years of bloodshed and mayhem,” writes Gladwell. “They did not get what they wanted, because they did not understand that power has an important limitation. It has to be seen as legitimate, or else its use has the opposite of its intended effect.”

Gladwell’s writing style is deceptively simple, even conversational. He’s like a genial college professor holding forth, working to engage and entertain his students.

Gladwell supplies theories and unifying themes — as tidily stated in the book’s subtitle — and he bolsters his ideas with scholarly research. But the author’s singular gift is animating the experiences of his subjects. He has an uncanny ability to simplify without being simplistic: clean and vivid Strunk and White prose in the service of peerless storytelling.

A point of irony, however: Gladwell is less convincing when he tries too hard to convince. This sometimes leads to generalities of his own, as when he uses “we” or “us” to collectively chastise “our” erroneous judgment or false assumptions. Under this burden, the prose can feel prescriptive and preachy.

It is surprising when this happens because Gladwell is so good at showing versus telling.

David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”

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