Archive for December 20th, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the Modern Memoir

“Everything that happens to us leaves traces, everything contributes imperceptibly to our development.”


There’s a hardcover edition of Dave Eggers’ first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, in which the text of the story actually starts on the book’s cover. There is no title page or copyright or About the Author; the story comprises the entire book, literally cover to cover.

I point this out because A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius does the same thing, albeit less obviously. Eggers’ memoir also starts on the front cover, what with its over-the-top title and  overtly pretentious cover art (by Komar and Melamid). In other words, if I’m judging this book by its cover, I’m guessing it’s written by Eckhart Tolle.

Once inside, the book includes a page that simply says “This was uncalled for” before a copyright page that includes a “sexual orientation scale,”* a “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoying this Book,” a preface, and an acknowledgements section that runs 25 pages, outlines his main themes, and concludes with a drawing of a stapler.

*With one being perfectly straight and 10 perfectly gay, Eggers gives himself a three.

One of those Eggers-elucidated main themes is “The Painfully, Endlessly Self-Conscious Book Aspect” which he immediately concedes is “probably obvious enough already.” This theme itself is broken into a second part: “The Knowingness about the Book’s Self-Conscious Aspect.”

Now, when you’re reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and you get to this part, where you haven’t even started the “text” yet, you have an important decision to make. If you scoff and find Eggers’ theatricality a bit smarmy and think “Enough already” or “Get on with it,” then you should probably stop there. He has alienated you, and you will not like him. But if, like me, this is essentially what you yourself would like to write one day (although now noting that your acknowledgements page will have to pay debt to Eggers’, adding another layer of self-consciousness), A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius might just live up to its title. Continue reading

Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part II

In case you missed Part I of our analysis of the decade’s best nonfiction, you can check it out here.

9/11, Pirates and Emperors, Hegemony or Survival, Failed States, et. al. – Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has always been prolific in his political writings, but the aftermath of 9/11 saw an increase in the relevance of his criticisms of American foreign policy. As an unabashed radical and critic of American interventionism, Chomsky’s writings express points of view that are virtually unrepresented in the mainstream discourse. For those who agree and those who disagree, Chomsky represents important challenges to American foreign policy that need to be addressed, given the country’s ongoing role in violent global affairs.

–John S

Moneyball – Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is arguably the best nonfiction writer of the Aughts, and Moneyball is one of the best nonfiction books of the Aughts. Lewis made Billy Beane and sabermetrics (i.e. baseball statistical analysis) into a superstar and super-method. No other book has had as much effect on the general management of a sport than Moneyball has had on baseball. OPS shifted from undervalued to properly or even overvalued (and, you know what’s next) and teams continued to hire Art Howe (well, that wasn’t a good thing). More than simply chronicling Beane’s (general) managerial philosophy, Lewis extracted meaningful themes from it such as capitalism’s push for efficiency as reflected in baseball and overcoming the deleterious effects of dogmatic insiders.


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Aught Lang Syne: The Decade in Nonfiction, Part I

Last week, NPI gave an overview of fiction (in two parts!) of the Aughts. Yesterday, Josh pointed out the popular economics trend in this decade’s nonfiction. Today, Josh and John are going over (in two parts!) what they believe are the biggest nonfiction books of the Aughts.

America: The Book – Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers

I bought this book for a good friend at a surprise birthday party in high school, as did another friend of mine unbeknownst to me. My copy was not kept since I didn’t write a note inside mine. I considered frowning. But, this situation nonetheless demonstrated the book’s appeal.  America: The Book is funny and representative of the politically satirical form of comedy that Stewart engendered in the Aughts through The Daily Show. The book is filled with little tidbits like: “Were you Aware? Cloture is something all Senators seek when a piece of beloved legislation dies.” There are also asides written by Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms. But, America: The Book is insightful as well as humorous; if a scholar in a future decade wanted to understand the American political climate in the early 2000s, this is one book he should examine, particularly the chapter on The Future of Democracy.


The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It – Paul Collier

In this book, development economist (and a former lecturer of mine) Paul Collier looks at the most impoverished countries in the world (home to about one billion individuals) and asks why they are experiencing so little growth. Explanations seem to occur in fours in the Aughts; there are four development traps that each of these countries typically suffer from: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance, particularly in small countries. While many of Collier’s suggestions are difficult to implement, the most promising is that trade policy needs to lower trade barriers for the Bottom Billion, giving preferential access to their exports. Another important highlight of this book is his attack on the misguided policies of NGOs and other charitable organizations. Ultimately, Collier popularized and integrated his important and informative empirical studies into one of the Aughts’ best development nonfiction books of the decade.


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