Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Learn Nothing

by Tim Kreider

I learned of this book from two podcasts, "Radiolab" and "Love, Sex, Death, and Books." After hearing Kreider talk about his essays, I put We Learn Nothing on the top of my list of books to read.

Kreider's essays are about love, friendship, loss, and a fear of being rejected. He expresses frustration and anxiety about not knowing; you can only know your friendships and relationships from your point of view. Kreider struggles with inexplicable, and explicable, losses of friendship. While Kreider claims, "I've demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons, and the main thing I seem to have learned from this one [being stabbed] is that I am capable of learning nothing from almost any experience, no matter how profound," ultimately, I think this is untrue. Kreider has learned something. It may seem like nothing, but, if nothing else, in each of his anecdotes, Kreider continues to learn about himself, and presents his evidence to the reader.

I don't want to describe this book with phrases like "universal truths" or "gems," but Kreider's book is full of them. Behind Kreider's humor and sarcasm are surprisingly poignant truisms. While Kreider's essays are his personal observations and anecdotes, they are relatable. He conveys feelings through his writing, not just circumstances. Reading "How They Tried to Fuck Me Over (But I Showed Them!)" was like looking into a mirror, at times. I may be an anger addict. Kreider writes, "If you're anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place." I'm still confronting high school bullies in my head, and it's surprisingly satisfying! Until I realize that I'm only confronting memories of people who aren't in the room.

Each of Kreider's essays contain halting moments. Moments where I needed to read the sentence again, and paused, with a reaction of "huh." In the opening "Reprieve," Kreider concludes saying, "I don't know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best, crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria." Huh.

Not all of Kreider's essays are "gems.""Escape from Pony Island," for instance, tends to drag. But "The Czar's Daughter" and "Sister World" are beautifully thoughtful and touching, and aren't without their moments of cynicism and self-deprecation, which you being to expect and love of Kreider's writing. Kreider isn't afraid of portraying himself on the page as unlikable. And for that, he becomes increasingly likable.

We Learn Nothing is well worth reading. Kreider's writing balances humor (the essays are even punctuated by Kreider's cartoons), melancholia, and sarcasm with his truisms, without being preachy. In the end, Kreider isn't out to teach us anything. And why would he be if he hasn't been able to learn anything from his own life? But there is a lot to take away from Kreider's book. If nothing else, this book will make you stop and think, "huh."

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