What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

Review: “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell


Thumbs up for What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. Nonfiction essays.

I adore Gladwell’s three other books, but I was rather disappointed by this one. Not that it’s bad: Gladwell is still one of the best nonfiction writers in the world, and if he wrote cereal boxes I’d recommend them. I liked the first section quite a bit, which dealt with the stories of unexpected things and people (gourmet ketchup, hairdye, Ceasar Millan the dog trainer). But the later essays all seemed to me to have the same quality of: “Idea presented. But also this, which contradicts it. Back to original idea. Maybe neither is right. What’s going on? We can’t predict.” And it all seems a bit pointless. So call it thumbs up with reservations.

“This was actually a version of what I would later learn psychologists call the other minds problem. One-year-olds think that if they like Goldfish Crackers, then Mommy and Daddy must like Goldfish Crackers, too: they have not grasped the idea that what is inside their head is different from what is inside everyone else’s head. Sooner or later, though, children come to understand that Mommy and Daddy don’t necessarily like Goldfish, too, and that moment is one of the great cognitive milestones of human development. Why is a two-year-old so terrible? Because she is systematically testing the fascinating and, to her, utterly novel notion that something that gives her pleasure might not actually give someone else pleasure – and the truth is that as adults we never lose that fascination. What is the first thing that we want to know when we meet someone who is a doctor at a social occasion? It isn’t “What do you do?” We know, sort of, what a doctor does. Instead, we want to know what it means to be with sick people all day long. We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor, because we’re quite sure that it doesn’t feel at all like what it means to sit at a computer all day long, or teach school, or sell cars. Such questions are not dumb or obvious. Curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses, and that same impulse is what led to the writing you now hold in your hands.”

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