Malcolm Gladwell is at it again, blending together seemingly disparate observations and phenomena from world history and much more recent events into what seems like it should be intriguing tapestry.
Subtitled, “What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know,” Talking To Strangers covers a lot of ground, much of which is surprising. Winston Churchill has been celebrated in many books and films as one of the leaders who helped the good guys emerge victorious in WWII. Much less celebrated was his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Gladwell lays out how Chamberlain made trips to Germany in 1938 to spend time with Adolf Hitler and was convinced that Hitler did not want war. He allowed himself to be convinced by a master manipulator that one of the worst world leaders of all time had only some modest ambitions and would not want to take over most of the planet. Similarly, Gladwell takes you into a courtroom and shares the plight of a judge overseeing arraignments of recently-arrested individuals and determining if they should remain jailed or allowed out on bail. The judge meets the alleged criminals and has moments to decide their fate. How often the judge is wrong and ends up releasing individuals who commit crimes is, like many of Gladwell’s revelations, disturbing.
Gladwell continues with observations on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, the Sandusky scandal at Penn State University, Fidel Castro duping American intelligence agencies, the role of alcohol in different cultures, police strategies, the Amanda Knox case and more.
Each of these examples is given a detailed examination and all are interesting in their own right. However, I somehow didn’t feel it all gelled together quite as well in this Gladwell work. While his own previous books and books such as Freakonomics by Dubner and Levitt were able to “layer” their case studies and seemingly random parts into a compelling whole, I didn’t come away with the same cohesive feeling this time.
Is it worth reading? Absolutely. It’s eye-opening. Gladwell’s B+ is still a mile ahead of many other writers at their very best. Perhaps it is simply a matter of expectations. If you are seeking a complete package with a nice ribbon wrapping it all up at the end, this one may fall a bit short is all I’m saying. Send hate mail here.
P.S. I read this 2019 book and wrote this review during the pandemic but had never shared the review. Gladwell does have a more recent book out but we still wanted to share our thoughts on his previous work.