I was unquestionably aided in this week’s reading endeavor by the Thanksgiving holiday, which right now means I wish I had brought an extra pair of stretchy pants but a day or so ago meant hours of uninterrupted reading time, thwarted only occasionally by my mother’s well-intentioned attempts to initiate conversation–attempts I rebuffed by grunting monosyllabic replies from behind my paperback. Because aren’t endless solitary hours of quiet reading time what Thanksgiving is really all about?
And certainly, I had the right book in hand. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has plenty of simultaneous compelling plots (to the point that after what was arguably the book’s major reveal, I was surprised to find there were still another 100 pages of denouement) and manages to cover the familiar crime-fiction territory of murder and intrigue without seeming stale. The book follows main character Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter and magazine editor who early on is charged with libel and consequently resigns his magazine post to spend a year in self-imposed exile, writing a family history for affable Swedish captain of industry Henrik Vanger, who has given Blomkvist the simultaneous (and more important) task of finding out what happened to a female family member that disappeared 30 years earlier. Along the way Mikael joins forces with Lisbeth Salander, a 20-something hacker and the famed owner of said dragon tattoo.
For a crime novel, “Dragon Tattoo” gets off to a slow start, which in retrospect I think has something to do with Larsson having written and submitted all three novels at once–200 pages of exposition seems less excessive in the context of three 700-page paperbacks than one. But the relationships so thoroughly established in the beginning–between Blomkvist and his colleague/longtime lover Erika Berger, between Salander and her employer, between Henrik Vanger and Blomkvist–prove relevant in the rest of the story, and in a way the time devoted to each person’s character makes the plot’s “whodunit” elements that much more compelling. Still, I would say the story truly picks up a little before the halfway point, and the last 100 pages have as much excitement as the first 400 combined.
Generally, I love books of essays. Really, it’s one of my favorite genres. But there are times, such as incredibly busy pre-holiday weeks when television is calling to me from the next room in all its prime time fall-programming glory, when it’s tough to get through them. Books of essays, that is. Consequently, I don’t think I gave “Half Empty” a fair shake this week.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. David Rakoff has an incredibly sharp wit, the kind of negative attitude I appreciate and a more or less unparalleled vocabulary (the closest I’ve seen is David Foster Wallace, who had a thing for multisyllabic words. And I mean multisyllabic). Many of Rakoff’s essays cover topics true to my heart—New York, work, aspirations, cynicism. He skewers the plot of “Rent,” tells how he insulted the now-deceased author of “The First Wives Club” whilst she was in a coma, and gives a poignant-without-being-cheesy account of his second (yes, second) encounter with cancer. He draws a distinction between being negative for negativity’s sake and simply being pessimistic to the point of preparedness (he defends both). There’s even an essay about porn.
So I don’t know why it was so hard for me to get into this book. It wasn’t quite long enough, or quick enough; it wasn’t post-beer train reading, due to the aforementioned vocabulary and his propensity for run-on sentences (something I can relate to). The essays also at times felt too unrelated, like a series of magazine columns plopped together in a book. Except for a bevy of Jewish humor, not much was consistent throughout.
And yet, despite finding myself apathetically underwhelmed by “Half Empty”, I still intend to read “Fraud,” the only Rakoff book remaining to me. And why? Because no matter how grumpy or tired or grumpily tired I found myself last week, this one paragraph, where Rakoff is ending things with his therapist, who then confesses that he will miss their sessions, is so ridiculously dead-on that I suspect perhaps this man and I are actually kindred spirits and my averse reaction to the book has everything to do with a sincere jealousy over his ability to word my darkest interior monologues. Enjoy.
“(Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness—a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest Self which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair—then this confirmation that you have triumphed once again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person you’d hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow sideshow-barker variation on “adorable,” even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one … well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.)
See what I mean?
At the end of the day, I think the reason I didn’t love “Half Empty” had everything to do with me: It really did feel a lot like reading my own thoughts, and typically so much of reading (books, at least) is an attempt on my part to escape them. I can hardly begrudge Rakoff his inability to help me cast off the doldrums of everyday life, especially when the book’s title is an indisputable reference to negative thinking. But I can grumpily give it two paper cuts; since he’s a true pessimist, Rakoff would have probably expected no different.
This may very well the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.
See, when I mentioned to friends that I was reading “The Devil in the White City,” I heard some resounding praise, but at least two people admitted they’d liked the book but never finished it. As someone who loathes not finishing books—even before this endeavor, I’d convinced myself that none of my half-read novels were abandoned so much as on hold—the possibility that I was about to embark upon a journey of which I’d grow bored halfway through was distressing. I pictured myself falling asleep to in-depth descriptions of 1890s Chicago, and waking up at 3 a.m. with drool on my glasses.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
The details of “Devil” simultaneously are and aren’t important. As a potential reader, you should know it follows two people during the time around Chicago’s 1893 hosting of the World’s Fair: the architect mastermind behind almost the entire event, and a serial killer who masqueraded as a businessman while preying on women in the same city. If you have some sort of niche affinity for Chicago history, this is definitely the book for you, but I would be remiss to pretend any interest in Chicago, architecture or history itself is a prerequisite for enjoying “The Devil in the White City.” Rather, the details are important only insomuch as there are tons of them. Every scene of every chapter is researched with such stunning thoroughness that “Devil” reads like a novel, and I found myself more than once stopping to consider the amount of research that must have gone into this book. (It doesn’t take much imagination: “Devil” has 390 endnotes, and its bibliography lists more than 130 sources). Perhaps the biggest testament to this breadth of work is the dichotomy between the two stories, which intersect only indirectly. Given America’s interest in true crime and the minds of criminals, I thought the story of H.H. Holmes, the killer, would be by far the more compelling of the two. Gas chambers, dissection, secret cellars full of mad scientist paraphernalia—this is the stuff of “Law & Order.” And indeed, Holmes’ story, phenomenally bolstered by excerpts from his own half-fabricated memoir, is riveting. Today, the idea of serial murder simply for the thrill of it seems borderline mundane, but in the late 1800s it was almost unheard of; Jack the Ripper had only recently made headlines. Perhaps this is why Holmes managed to dispose of nearly a dozen of his closer acquaintances without the police catching on (it was pursuit of insurance fraud that ultimately led authorities to discover his more heinous crimes).
For such a great title, Proofiness gets off to a rough start.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by nonfiction writers known for their pizazz as much as their knowledge—my most recent nonfiction read was by the utterly hilarious Mary Roach—but it’s worth noting that Charles Seife is a decidedly dull writer. I mean, he tries—on one page, he jokes that “Ramsey County’s voter turnout lists seemed to have been lovingly maintained by a pack of wild raccoons”—but it comes across sort of like a high school science teacher trying to pal around with a classroom of uninterested students (not entirely surprising, considering Seife is a professor). Assuming the people reading this book are doing so of their own free will, the jokey pandering is odd. Then again, maybe he’s just a big nerd with a dubious sense of humor.
Unfortunately, Proofiness kind of missed the mark for me, at least in the beginning, and a low-ish opinion of his audience’s intelligence was a general problem I had with Seife, and the book overall. The first few chapters are devoted almost entirely to an overview of what I would consider basic math. On one page, Seife suggests “Most people think that ‘average’ means typical—that if, say, the average salary at a company is $100,000, then each employee earns $100,000, more or less.”
…Really? I mean sure, if you polled the general population, that’s probably the case. Shit, a significant percentage of the general population doesn’t know who the vice president is. But we’re not talking about the general population—we’re talking about the decidedly smaller universe of people choosing to read a nonfiction book about statistics. Give us the benefit of the doubt.
Seife does touch on some hugely relevant topics: poll results, elections, the validity of the Census, faulty science, the court system. In fact, despite my bias after reading three chapters of Stats 101, I was still intrigued and even shocked by some of his better points—did y’all know that part of the reason OJ Simpson was acquitted was the use, in court no less, of a highly inaccurate statistic? (No really, am I the only one who didn’t know this?)Proofiness also has a healthy dose of pessimism, for which I have always had an affinity. In particular, I enjoyed reading about something known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which explains everything from global warming to that dickwad that orders lobster for dinner when you’ve all agreed to split the bill equally. Here, edify yourselves:
“The tragedy of the commons occurs when an individual can take an action that benefits him, yet the negative consequences of that action are diffused—such as when they’re divided among a large group of people or when they take a long time to materialize. In situations like these, people act selfishly, getting as much benefit as they can, but as a consequence, we’re all worse off. …Tragedy of the commons is an immutable fact about society. If the benefits of our actions are divorced, to some extent, from their negative consequences, we’re going to take those actions—even if they lead to a very unfortunate outcome for everybody. The tragedy of the commons is a result of human nature.”
Overall, Seife gets his point across: When people see numbers, they assume truth, and there are zillions of situations where that results in people believing, or being told to believe, things that are false. It’s a conclusion that has serious implications for the way we approach politics, the economy and human nature itself. I just wish he had said it with a bit more flare.
Long story short, this book ruined statistics for me. Which, even though it makes watching the news or reading magazines decidedly less fun, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for such a (relatively) short read, Seife spent far too long explaining the basics and too little time going in-depth on the real-world implications of shoddy number-crunching. He could have used a read-through from someone more prone to sensation (even though part of his thesis is a condemnation of over-sensationalizing things). I think an edit from Michael Moore would have done him well. Personally, I’d prefer Seife in small doses—a weekly column debunking whatever statistic is currently being thrown around by pundits would probably be awesome—but the book is worth a full read only if you don’t feel up to snuff on your middle-school math (which, hey, many of us don’t). If you do, and still want the dirt, skip Chapters 1-3.
TITLE: Proofiness —————————— AUTHOR: Charles Seife —————————— PAGES: 260 (in hardcover) —————————— ALSO WROTE:Zero, Decoding the Universe —————————— SORTA LIKE: Freakonomics meets A Short History of Nearly Everything —————————— FIRST LINE: ” ‘In my opinion, the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.’ “
Well I made it through the weekend without crying on the floor of any bathroom, and finished my addiction memoir to boot. It may or may not have been karma that I read the last 50 pages while nursing a severe hangover on my couch, but a mission accomplished is a mission accomplished.
There’s something I want to say before going into the book itself, which was as heartbreaking and poignant as I expected it to be. Because in order to really, I think, appreciate Beautiful Boy, you have to step back and put the family’s story in context. Not the context of addiction itself, though that too is important, but the context of being young, of being at an age where drugs aren’t hard to come by and more importantly, aren’t unusual to do.
See, in my opinion at least, there is a pervasive sentiment among teenagers and 20-somethings that the majority of drugs are basically okay. This isn’t, as adults like to believe, simply a product of drug use at some point in youth becoming “cool,” nor is preventing drug use simply a matter of eliminating or tampering peer pressure. Many teenagers do drugs for the same reason addicts do—because they want to get high. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, acid—I could tell many of my friends that I had done any of the above without raising eyebrows. And I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. Heroin, crack and meth (the latter is the focal point of Beautiful Boy) are the triumvirate of what I’d consider untouchables, but that’s three out of many. It stands to reason that cultural acceptance (however age-based) of the many is likely to make the few seem decidedly less unsafe.
It’s problematic, to say the least. I don’t know why, or when, drugs cease to become a real threat (which isn’t to say that people don’t develop addiction later in life). It may be a physical change; it may be a mental one; maybe it simply becomes unfathomable to call up a drug dealer past the age of 35. But what’s important is that between, say, ages 15 and 25, the ten years during which drugs seem most prevalent, they are also the least frowned-upon.