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Thoughts on Recently Read Books, by Leah Dockrill

Artist and 805 contributor Leah Dockrill uses ideas from her latest read to questions how we interpret information during a time of crisis. This post is part of for 805’s “My Home Library” blog series that features posts by writers and artists enjoying their home libraries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 805 is published by the Manatee County Public Library System, and since most libraries have closed due to the pandemic, we hope this blog series will help people show off their home libraries, find comfort in books, and feel a connection to the library during this difficult time.

I finished Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers last night. Initially, I was puzzled that anyone would bother to write a book about something so obvious–that people are not good at discerning, from looking at an unfamiliar person’s face or manner, or even engaging in initial conversation, whether the person is truthful or dishonest. The tendency of most people is to think the best of strangers–that they are being honest. Gladwell terms this as “defaulting to truth.”

He cites several examples, including outcomes of academic research to support his thesis. He refers to situations in which defaulting to truth has led to disastrous results, such as Neville Chamberlain’s meeting and conversation with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain formed the impression that Hitler was a good man, a man of his word. In retrospect, it would have been better if Chamberlain had skipped the meeting. A different course of action would have been followed; the world would not have been plunged into war.

The way people perceive other people varies, however. Although Gladwell argues the general tendency of people is to assume honesty in others, some of us tend to be skeptical and suspicious. In some cases, the consequences of this skepticism are to the good; in other cases, bad. He recounts two well-known anecdotes in recent history to illustrate bad, actually horrifying outcomes.

The first case is that of Sandra Bland, a young, black woman who was arrested by a police officer, ostensibly for some minor traffic violation. The encounter escalated, the woman was incarcerated, and she committed suicide in prison three days later. The officer, essentially trained to be suspicious, reacted to her body language, rather than to the truths she was telling.

Gladwell describes also the experience of Amanda Knox, who was accused, tried and convicted by an Italian court of murdering her roommate. She continually protested that she was innocent. She was imprisoned and endured the anguish of incarceration and numerous appeals, before she was finally freed. Her life was ruined, Gladwell maintains, because prosecutors and courts were influenced by her unusual personality traits, odd actions following the death of the roommate, rather than evidence of guilt, which was lacking. They did not “default to truth.”

Experiments that have been conducted among some U.S. police departments, as well as academic research, have led Gladwell to conclude that in addition to the substance of conversations with people, and their demeanor during the conversation, the context has to be considered: that is, where and when. The time and the place of the conversation, as well as what they say, and their outward manner, are crucial in determining truthfulness.

Gladwell’s theories give me a lot to think about and fret about–particularly at the current time when most of us are wondering whether the COVID-19 pandemic will result in the destruction of humanity. Some of us are cynical about the outcome. We recall Nevil Chute’s On The Beach. The annihilation of the human race was caused by radiation sickness that crept from the Northern Hemisphere to Australia to the last standing human beings in the world. The current situation is a chilling parallel.

We face an ongoing dilemma. Every day we listen to and watch political leaders, medical experts, pundits, journalists, and reporters. We hear facts and opinions. We read reports and commentaries. We are exposed to social media and bloggers. We sift through countless items and extract information and misinformation. Are we engaging in critical thinking, or as Gladwell contends, are most of us tending to default to truth? This is the first of Gladwell’s many works that I have read. It was thought-provoking, and I will soon follow up with his previous books.

I have an extensive library, a small portion of which I have photographed. It is housed in

custom-built low bookshelves which go around the room and are obscured by large furniture. I have a complete set of Somerset Maugham and an almost complete set of works by Jodi Picoult, which gives an idea of how broad my tastes in fiction are. The most impressive novels I have read in the past few months are The Goldfinch by Donna Tart, The Golden House by Salman Rushdie, and all of Jonathan Franzen’s novels.

I also enjoy autobiographical works, and among those I would recommend a recent book by journalist, April Ryan. Under Fire is her account of her professional life as a White House reporter in the time of Donald Trump.

The one periodical to which I have been subscribing for several years is Kolaj (Kasini House, Montreal). This publication explores developments and trends in the art form of collage. In addition to that, I make time to occasionally read the issues of the many art and literature journals that have generously published my artwork in recent years.


Leah Dockrill holds degrees in Law, Education and Library Science and she has been engaged in the visual arts for over thirty years. Her paintings and collages have been exhibited in both Canada and the U.S. and published in several art and literature reviews, including 805 Lit + Art. She is an elected member of both the Society of Canadian Artists, and the Colour and Form Society. Leah lives in Toronto, Canada.


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