Red Badge of Courage was torturous--for me and for them). I thought Gladwell's Outliers might be the type of interesting and thought-provoking nonfiction that would help start their year in English on a more positive note. I'm still not sure whether it's right for the classroom, but, on a personal level, I found the book interesting and worthwhile.
Like with Gladwell's What the Dog Saw (which I also enjoyed), there are some problems with Gladwell's anecdote-heavy broad social theories, but there are also some really important points. The most important of which, I think, is his primary thesis: that success does not come solely from one individual's hard work. Yes, hard work and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities are essential for success, but so much else--luck, family, culture--combines to allow those at the top to get to the top. And one of our very real problems in America is that we're so individual-focused that we fail to see that one's success (and, I think you have to argue--though Gladwell doesn't much--one's failure) is almost never due to a person's native intelligence or genius. A lack of awareness of this basic fact has huge effects in schooling, where every day I meet kids who believe they "can't" write or read well, rather than seeing reading and writing as skills that can be developed and improved upon.
The earliest parts of the book were the most intriguing for me, particularly the first chapter on the importance of hockey players' birthdays and the two chapters on the fallacy of geniuses. The chapters on culture dragged a bit more for me, and I'm not sure Gladwell did enough to argue that there's not one "right" cultural way (i.e., Asian countries are very successful in math--but so is Finland, which has a hugely different educational system).
At the very least, it might be worthwhile using some of the chapters in my classroom, particularly those showing the importance or practice and perseverance So often my kids think it's a weakness if they have to spend hours on an essay (and instead praise the student who can "get away" with only spending 30 minutes) rather than recognizing that that effort is what creates success.