Malcolm Gladwell, the author of numerous best-selling books and a writer for The New Yorker, recently made a surprising stop on the publicity tour for his latest effort, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. At Glenn Beck’s television studio in Dallas, where his online show is filmed, the two men discussed faith, the mainstream media, and Gladwell’s career. Beck, dressed in a suit and donning a colorful blue bowtie, was nevertheless playing it cool: far from the ringmaster presiding over a circus of conspiracy-theorizing and racial pot-stirring, the former Fox host was calm and relaxed.
Indeed, Beck seemed surprised to see Gladwell in the flesh, but the tone of the conversation – pleasant, agreeable, religiously-themed – struck me as surprising. The interview began when Beck scolded the mainstream media for ignoring the faith-based aspects of Gladwell’s new book. “It’s an odd thing,” Gladwell responded. “By the end of the book I realized what I really wanted to talk about was faith…The weapons of the spirit.” Beck asked whether Gladwell himself was spiritual, and Gladwell responded that although he grew up in a religious household, he “drifted away,” and “with this book I am coming back.” He added: “This book was a weird journey for me.”
Listening to all this seemed like a weird journey for me, as someone who has closely followed Gladwell’s career. I have read nearly everything Gladwell has written – I wrote a long piece for The New Republic about him in 2009 – and I had never sensed a spiritual or religious dimension in his work. (I did criticize him for writing a form of self-help book, a genre that often has a religious tinge.) So I decided to call Gladwell up and discuss some of these issues with him.
Gladwell was working on an article, but he was solicitous and engaged, and answered all my questions. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on the show of someone known for racially insensitive remarks and deranged political commentary, Gladwell said that Beck was an “important member of the media community,” and that when you enter into a contract with your book publisher, you are obligated to get the book out to as many people as possible. (After we got off the phone, Gladwell also emailed me a “disclosure statement” he wrote on his website about book writing, and how book authors and magazine/newspaper writers have different obligations and responsibilities.) He added that it isn’t necessary to agree with the views of everyone who is interviewing you.
What most interested me was Gladwell’s claim about the book’s religious content. On this subject, Gladwell seconded what he had said to Beck, essentially arguing that different people read the book in different ways. “It’s a very interesting experience—I was in Salt Lake City…and everyone read the book that way,” Gladwell told me. “I must have done six interviews and all they talked about was the faith part. I think it depends where you stand.” He added, in a phrase that one could hear Beck uttering, that “people on the coast” seemed to be ignoring the faith-based aspects of the book. (On his show, Beck claimed that the book was something he himself could have written.)
Gladwell’s book has an index: Neither “faith” nor “God” nor “religion” appear in it. Faith is not mentioned on the cover flap. It’s true that some of the stories he tells involve religious people, but he shies away from religious language and lays almost no stress on the religious dimensions of the various tales.
When I pressed him to identify the spiritual aspects of the book, he more than once mentioned the epigraph, which is a quote from the first Book of Samuel. (There is also the title, of course.) When I pressed for more, he said there was not a “specific passage of the book,” but that the idea of faith coursed through it. He used none of the language that he used with Beck, where he stated, “Sometimes people of faith don’t understand how powerful their faith makes them.”
I am not going to review David and Goliath here – in our next issue of the magazine, John Gray has written a detailed essay on it – but on Beck’s show Gladwell went well beyond anything he said in the book. For example, in the book Gladwell talks about a French town run by Protestants who decided to shelter Jews. Some reviewers have taken issue with the lesson Gladwell draws from the story, which is essentially that underdogs do stand a fighting chance. But on Beck’s show, Gladwell exclaimed, approvingly taking the voice of the French resisters, “Woah. Armed with the spirit of the Lord, we can actually hold our own against a bunch of [Nazis] with tanks.”
In the book, Gladwell attributes some of the French Protestant defiance to their difficult history of being persecuted, but the chapter is not about religion. (The chapter also makes clear that there were other factors that led to the strange situation in this particular town.) I did not ask Gladwell whether he actually thinks faith is the best resistance to totalitarianism and genocide.
Gladwell seemed disappointed that, as he said, some of the people who had criticized his book had not read it, and he was also clearly thankful that Beck himself certainly appeared to have consumed David and Goliath with interest. He told me that this book was different from the other books he had written, and returned to the idea of a journey: “one the book will take the reader on.”