What I’ve Been Reading: I Wear the Black Hat, The Metaphysical Club, Feynman, Sedaris

I Wear the Black Hat, by Chuck Klosterman. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though I am predisposed to liking it. blackhatRock critic/pop culture writer/contributing editor for Grantland/New York Times Ethicist /read option analyst has a rather distinctive style, and, like several of his other books, I Wear the Black Hat is composed of a series of thematically linked stand alone essays which explore the nature of villainy. The subjects of the essays run the gamut, from the movie Death Wish to Bill Clinton to OJ Simpson to Andrew Dice Clay to (somewhat to Klosterman’s chagrin), Hitler. But like all of Klosterman’s books — and as he repeatedly acknowledges — the meta-subject of the book is himself, and the particular way he processes and turns over cultural figures and ideas is part of an extended self-analysis. So I enjoyed the book, but that probably says as much about me as it does the book itself.

- The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand. This book, the 2002 Pulitzer winner for History, is nominally the story of the leading thinkers in the school of philosophy (loosely) known as “Pragmatism,” namely William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Charles Sanders Peirce. The book does a nice job teasing out and explicating the key features of pragmatism, commonly referred to as the United States’s greatest contribution to philosophy, but its real strength is placing those ideas, and more importantly the men who worked through the philosophical questions and propounded possible solutions, in their historical setting, primarily the era of the Civil War and its aftermath. The book is not so much a contribution to academic philosophy, although it did flesh out some things for me and raises excellent questions along the way, its primary value is as a well-written history of pragmatic thought.

- “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, by Richard Feynman. Structured as a loose collection of thoughts and recollections from the brilliant physicist, the book is surprisingly funny, witty, and even, at certain turns, heartfelt, though Feynman always keeps a bit of of intellectual distance from any issue he faces, whether it’s building the atomic bomb or picking up women in bars.

- The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, by Michael Maubossin is a well written synthesis of a lot of modern thinking on luck and probability, and if one hasn’t read anything on this subject they could do a lot worse. But I didn’t find a lot here that was new, certainly not to readers of Smart Football, Bill Barnwell’s work at Grantland, Chase Stuart at the Football Perspective, Advanced NFL Stats, etc.

- Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. Like everything Sedaris writes it’s good and funny, but not up to the (impossibly high) standard of Me Talk Pretty One Day. The best essay in the book is probably one on Sedaris’s attempt to learn foreign languages, a subject he has already hilariously described in other stories, particularly Jesus Shaves. I also found the interspersed essays/narratives not specifically narrated by Sedaris to be distracting, partially because I was reading the book on my Kindle and there was nothing to indicate whether an “I” or “me” was intended to be Sedaris or some other character. It’s not to say it never became apparent, just that wasn’t an easy transition. Don’t let me sound too harsh, however: I repeatedly laughed out loud while reading this book.

  • Daniel fontenot

    Currently reading The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South,1919-1945 by Daniel Joseph Singal. Explores the lives of Warren,Faulkner,Rupert Vance and many other Southern writers, sociologists, etc.

  • Ross

    Just got done reading The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch. A poet who also happens to be the town undertaker writes several essays on these themes. It is a really thought provoking book.