Wednesday, July 16, 2014

We Learn Nothing: “I’ve demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons.”

My first introduction to Tim Kreider was on a book podcast where he was the guest author. Right away he told a story about a performance art exhibit he attended at the MOMA. The piece featured a live, nude woman, and the art made eye contact with passers-by, probably to send a message about the power of gaze. Well Tim was no match for it, and he fled the exhibit. But on his second visit, he decided he would not quail and planted himself in front of the art, making eye contact with the model for 20 minutes. This connection was broken only when she stepped down to be replaced by a different model. In this interview, Tim said he felt as though he knew the woman intimately after that experience, better than he would if they had gone on a date, which led to a conversation about the inherently empty nature of first-date conversations.

A noble pursuit.

I paused the podcast and put his book on hold at the library. I could tell that Tim was, as the protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! might put it, “a noticing kind of person.” And I wanted to see what else he had noticed.

We Learn Nothing is a collection of essays intermixed with occasional cartoons (Tim’s also a satirical cartoonist). There’s no theme per se, but each essay begins on the premise of a personal anecdote and then almost imperceptibly pans out to reveal a larger, shared human experience.

One of my favorites, “When They’re Not Assholes,” starts out as Tim’s fairly predictable jaunt crashing a Tea Party rally (“At first glance, the crowd at the Tax Day rally unhelpfully confirmed all my snottiest liberal stereotypes about conservatives.”) but ends up as an insightful analysis of the enmity between two political extremes.
Red and Blue bash each other with the hysterical homophobia of the closeted because we recognize in each other our most loathed secret selves. We’re the Red States’ feckless, ineffectual, faggy compassionate side that they like to think they’ve successfully quashed, just as they . . . are our more credulous and aggressive selves, whom we’re too inhibited to own up to. . . . We are one another’s political Shadows. We may hate each other, but let’s at least quit pretending we hate hating each other; we love hating each other.

Taking on a completely different subject, “An Insult to the Brain” provides a literary analysis of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, interweaves that with a mother/son story, and concludes it all with a boy-and-his-dog moment that made the backs of my eyeballs prickly.

And the other essays diverge just as widely as these two in their subject matter.

This book found me right in the middle of a season where interacting with those I don’t agree with is so distressing that I flinch at exchanges that could make me a more informed and compassionate person. Either my emotions get in the way of my reasoning skills or I have one too many drinks and make a spectacular argument that no one hears because bars are NOISY and drunk people don’t usually care about birth control in more than just the immediate sense that it might come in handy in a few hours. (What? No . . . that didn’t just happen to me. I like to be specific with my examples, is all.)

I didn't always agree with Tim Kreider, but I could always relate with him. AND I was able to discuss portions of his Tea Party essay with my politically conservative mother without either of us yelling or crying.

Right. Good. Baby steps.


  1. This sounds iiiiinteresting. I've thought a lot about the whole conservative/liberal divide, and how the internet means that you can pick and choose who you're communicating with so that you can go MONTHS without seeing someone who disagrees with you. Which, let's face it, is awesome, but it's also not great for either our arguing skills, or just generally knowing about how other people think.

    But, it's also how you find people across the world who are your people, so I guess it's not all bad...

  2. I was waiting for this review since you posted on facebook about it since I had no idea who he was but HELLO TITLE. And ooooooh this sounds like something I should read. I wonder how readily available it will be at an Australian library.

  3. There's definitely something to be said for being able to "hide updates" from certain people on Facebook and choose to follow only like-minded individuals on Twitter. When I read an ignorant political opinion from someone I KNOW, it makes me physically ill, and I would rather avoid that feeling. But then, yeah, the whole exchange of ideas concept is sort of necessary to maintain a free-thinking nation.

    Whatever happens...we'll always have each other.

  4. IT IS SO GOOD. The cartoons were so-so, but the essays themselves? Superb. I hope your library doesn't let you down!


    Also maybe I should marry this guy? He could be the one, Megs. The one who changed everything.

  6. This sounds so good! The quote you shared in the title made me smile while the quote you shared in the review seems very insightful. I think that's a great combination for a book!