Misbehaving by Richard H. Thaler

misbehaving

I’ve never thought I’d once read a book about economics that I’d have to violently pry from my own hands at 1:00 a.m to force myself to go to sleep, after promising myself three times that I’d definitely sleep after just one more chapter, and failing to keep this promise three times.

What’s more, I’ve never thought I’d ever willingly read about economics. I used to have this weird prejudice against economics and economists that economists are probably like one of my high school classmates who was preparing for a career in this field and who once borrowed a 500-page volume of poetry from the library (perhaps in an attempt to attain a rounded education) and read through it from beginning to end while I watched in horror. Anyway, based on this I thought that economics must be an awfully regular and cold and logical field of study, and those always make me want to break down and cry.

In hindsight, I think this classmate of mine must have been an Econ – a homo economicus, who – based on this book’s definition – is a human who behaves rationally in all circumstances, makes all the right choices based on knowledge and facts, knows what’s advantageous for him, and doesn’t suffer from issues with self-control and will-power, so he can always act according to what’s in his best interest. According to Thaler, though, Econs – even though for a long time they served as models for all kinds of theories in economics – don’t really exist. Instead of Econs, the world is mostly filled with Humans, who tend to make irrational decisions based on impulses; who prefer to eat one Oreo cookie now instead of eating three 15 minutes later; who sometimes go all the way across town to get something for a couple of dollars less while in other situations cheerfully ignore those same couple of dollars; who know in the depth of their hearts that they should finally start saving money for retirement but still tend to postpone dealing with this question because setting up a retirement fund or taking out a pension insurance is complicated and involves filling out various forms.

And what a relief to read about Humans, not Econs.

Because don’t get me wrong: Thaler doesn’t say that it’s the Humans’ fault that they don’t behave as if they were Econs. He says it’s economics to blame when it bases its theories and models on the impossibly predictable behavior of beings who don’t even exist. And Thaler spent his life trying to change this false belief economics had about Humans.

Richard Thaler is one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics. Right from the beginning of his career, he liked to misbehave a lot, he had a penchant for studying all kinds of anomalies (phenomena where Humans didn’t behave in the way they were supposed to behave based on the tenets of economics based on Econs), and he liked to team up with psychologists and social scientists during his work (which, again, didn’t endear him to the supposedly precise and data-driven bunch of economists).

The book is partly a professional autobiography, and partly the story of the birth and development of the field of behavioral economics – and it’s certainly an exciting story. There’s a whole lot of entertaining debates and fights here between professors of different elite universities, and it’s exhilarating to watch all these duels between old-school economists who hang on for dear life to the old economical models while the misbehaving economists of Thaler’s kind go on to demonstrate that the old models don’t work.

And then there’s a lot of down-to-earth and entertainingly presented examples of everyday economics: why we feel regret if we have a ticket to a concert but decide to stay at home on the big night because of a snowstorm; why we feel it’s grossly unfair if the hardware store sells snow shovels at twice their regular price on the day after the big snowstorm; why we tend to choose a small reward we can be sure about instead of taking risks but why we tend to take bigger risks in a losing situation; and how cleverly we convince ourselves that if we buy a bottle of expensive wine now, which we want to drink ten years later, then this is not really an expense but an investment, and ten years from now we can drink a bottle of special wine for free. (Of course, none of these forms of behavior conform to the way an Econ would behave.)

So all in all, this is a very educational and interesting book, and it’s very humanistic in its approach. And Thaler is a funny, ironic and self-ironic natural-born storyteller, someone who – believe me – can even talk about pension insurance in a way that you want to read one more chapter about it. And then one more. And then you feel like you want to take out an insurance policy first thing next morning.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

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It’s usually difficult to mention this important fact casually in the post about whatever book I’m writing about, so probably I haven’t mentioned it too often on this blog yet that I love to walk. I don’t mean ambling, strolling, or hiking. I mean walking. Walking to reach a destination, or walking just for the sake of walking. Mostly in cities, but anywhere else for that matter.

I don’t have a car (nor do I have a driving license), I don’t have a public transport pass, and I don’t have a bike. I go wherever I can on foot, and when I can’t go somewhere on foot, I take the public transport, preferring the slower and more earth-bound options because I like to be in close contact with the ground I tread, and I like to go as slow as possible because the journey is usually more interesting than the arrival.

Nowadays I’m preparing mentally for a long walk, and while I was reading up on my intended trip, I came across this book. I wanted it immediately.

And I wasn’t disappointed – this book is just like a walk.

A walk taken by someone else, therefore not precisely as enjoyable as my own walks.

Solnit’s walking style, rhythm and speed don’t always match mine; she doesn’t always stop for a break at the places I would stop at, sometimes she wanders around for hours at places I wouldn’t even stop to look at, and sometimes she rushes by things I find enormously exciting. Despite all this, it’s mostly very interesting. Solnit’s thoughts about the beauties of walking are similar to mine, and she writes about her passion for walking in a way that I immediately start to plan my next all-day walk.

For instance, she says that walking, the speed of 3 miles per hour is somehow perfectly matches the speed of the mind, which is the reason why you can do a lot of wonderful free association, thinking, and remembering during a walk.

Another attribute of walking she finds attractive, which I find very attractive, too, is the slowness of it, and the fact that walking is one of the best and most accepted ways of doing nothing while still doing something. Sure, walking is slow. But one of the reasons I walk everywhere is that my daily walking time is often the only part of my day when I’m free to do seemingly nothing, when I’m not required to be efficient or seem efficient – and this is great because nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to be efficient 24 hours a day.

Of course, everyone walks all the time. Everyone used to walk throughout history. And even though the book deals with Solnit’s own walks and her corresponding theories about walking, too, it’s still mostly a book about the interesting bits of the history and development of walking. It’s not a definitive history of walking (writing such a thing would probably be impossible), it’s one history of walking – and it’s a strange topic: what kind of history could such an everyday activity have?

Turns out walking does have a history, and not only that – it also has a lot of cultural, political and social aspects, and the answer to the question of who, when, why, where and how much could walk isn’t that everyone everywhere could walk just as much as their legs desired.

Solnit touches upon a whole array of topics and fields of sciences – there’s literary history here, together with anthropology, cultural history, feminism, philosophy, climbing, landscape architecture, art history, city planning, urbanization and suburbanization, and countless others.

She really goes in so many directions that I have to contend myself with mentioning only a few interesting bits.

For example, Solnit talks about the connections among the rise of automobile traveling, suburbanization, the decline of walking, and alienation. It’s not only that everything is far away in an American suburb so you can’t possibly get anywhere on foot – the reason you can’t go anywhere on suburbia is that there are no destinations there and that everyone goes by car anyway, so walking is suspicious. And another reason is the lack of sidewalks – and by the way, the lack of sidewalks or any kind of walkable spaces for that matter is terrifying for me, and I’m glad that in Europe it’s still possible to walk at most places. Of course, the lack of walkable spaces also entails that the street as a space for public discourse ceases to exist, and everyone just moves from one private space to another in the privacy of their car, while the street becomes ever more dangerous and scary.

Another exciting topic Solnit deals with is the male and female presence on the street – it’s a fascinating topic of gender studies – why the street is more dangerous and more forbidden for a female than for a male, and this is one of the topics I would have liked to read much more about.

And then Solnit also talks about walkable and unwalkable cities; about metaphors and similes connected to walking; about Elizabeth Bennet’s scandalous two-mile walk across the muddy fields which resulted in getting her gown dirty; about revolutions, festivals and peace marches, all of which involve people getting out there on the streets, walking there alone or together with others, creating traffic obstacles or just having fun; about walking clubs and walking movements; about the cult of nature; about the accidental beauties of walking and the unexpected meetings it can lead to; about walking-as-art; about the (literary) figure of the flâneur; and about a million other things.

This book is like what happens when you set out in the morning and you know that you will spend the whole day walking, you will cover several miles, you will see and think many things, and though not everything will be fascinating or even interesting, a lot of things will be like that. And this is another great aspect of long walks – if the walk is really long, than you can easily spend 3 miles thinking about finally reaching a spot where you can pee – because there’s time enough for this, for something completely mundane to fill your mind for miles. Because there will be all the other miles for all the other kinds of thoughts.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

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There’s this wonderful section in José Saramago’s All the Names (translated by me from the Hungarian, so it probably doesn’t have too much in common with the official English translation):

„The decision popped out of Senhor José’s mind two days later. We generally don’t say that a decision pops out of our mind, people guard their personality carefully no matter how plain it is, and their human poise, no matter how insignificant it is, so they’d rather tell us that they thought things over before taking the final step, considered the benefits and the drawbacks, pondered the chances and choices, and after intense mental work they finally decided. We must say, things never work this way.”

Blink illustrates in 300 (breathtakingly interesting and un-putdownable) pages the point Saramago makes in a single paragraph. Which just underlines the fact that (good) fiction understands the essence of things and the working of humans just as well as (popular) psychology, and it doesn’t even have to provide lengthy explanations. Anyway, like I say, Gladwell’s explanations and stories are fascinating so I don’t mind the length at all.

Blink is about how decisions pop out of us – about how in the blink of an eye, armed with only the most minimal information, without carefully considering the pros and cons we suddenly make a decision or evaluate a situation. Whether, for example, we find someone likeable of disagreeable; whether a work of art is genuine or fake; whether the person coming in our direction on the dark street is potentially dangerous or harmless; whether someone’s lying or not; whether a musician plays well or not; and so on.

According to Gladwell, our instant decisions and evaluations of situations are often more precise than the decisions we make after scrupulously investigating every facet of the matter. The reason for this is that our brain, without us being consciously aware of it, continuously senses and interprets millions of morsels of information, and is able to come up with a decision or answer in a matter of seconds. In other words, this is the famous gut feeling, which in fact doesn’t have a lot to do with feelings. These premonitions and unconscious decisions are also based on real information, already existing knowledge, details and patters observed unconsciously – and not on some whim or fancy.

Gut feelings are thus very useful, and according to Gladwell, it’s worth placing greater trust in them. Which is, of course, difficult. Partly because our premonitions and instant recognitions are inexplicable, and as we are humans, we like to explain everything away because it makes us feel safer. Therefore, we tend to trust those things more for which we can line up lots of supporting facts and hard data – things we can put into words, but turns out we sometimes do more harm than good with this attitude.

A good example for this is the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing” mentioned in the book. This is the case when our attempt to verbalize something harms our ability to recognize it. Face recognition is an example of instant recognition: we don’t ponder consciously what makes someone’s face recognizable but when we see a familiar face, we recognize it immediately. According to certain studies, though, if, for example, we try to describe in words the face of a criminal whose crime we witnessed, this makes it less likely that we’ll recognize the face in a police line-up.

This is one difficulty. And then there’s the other one, namely, that our ability to make instant decisions is far from being infallible. Our instant decisions are strongly influenced by prejudices, by what we want to see into a situation, by extreme stress, or by the situations in which we have to make quick decisions too quickly. Even making instant decisions takes some time, and without sufficient time we will simply decide imprudently.

The good news is, though, that the ability to make instant decisions is by no means some kind of magical ability only possessed by a select few. It’s something almost everyone’s brain is capable of, something we automatically use every single day, and something that can grow strong on its own in our areas of expertise.

The first chapter of the book is about this exactly. The chapter deals with an antique sculpture in miraculously good condition that’s offered for sale to a museum by an antiques dealer. The museum carries out all the usual checks and examinations before committing to the purchase, and they decide that the sculpture is genuine. A little later, however, a couple of real experts take a look at the sculpture and they immediately, without any kind of examinations, see that it’s a fake. They can’t say why they think it’s a fake – all they have is a vague, instinctive reaction which comes down to the general feeling that something’s not okay. As it turns out later, the sculpture was really not okay.

This is not magic, though. It’s more like that anecdote I’ve read once somewhere, where someone asked a painter or an art historian how he knows whether a painting is good. He said: That’s easy. First you look at one million paintings, and then you’ll know.

I’ve long been fascinated by this anecdote, and Gladwell says it actually works this way. It really only takes this much for people who know their craft, people with a lot of experience, because their brain already contains all their previous knowledge and information necessary for making instant judgments. (And of course not even these people are infallible.)

I could go on and recount more stories from this book – Gladwell is an excellent, exhilarating story-teller. The review quoted on the front page, which says that Blink is great material for cocktail party conversations, is certainly true. I don’t really attend cocktail parties, but this book is also awesome for pub conversations. It’s entertaining-popular psychology at its best.

Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

cityboy

Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

justkids

Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.

Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.

It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that  from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.

Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.

However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.

Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.

Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.

And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.

Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

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Honestly, do you care what the Illinois State Fair was like in 1993? Do you care about the hidden miraculous trigonometry of tennis? Or do you care to know what it feels like to spend a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise, pampered to death in the company of 1300+ tropically clad, wealthy fellow Americans under the vast lapis lazuli dome of the sky?

Read these essays, and you will care. Even if you’ve never thought these things could be of any interest to you.

Are you irrationally afraid of vacuum toilets? Or of the insanely moving, vomit-inducing ferry-wheels of country fairs? Or of the possibility that irony will perhaps destroy the world?

Read these essays, and you will be.

Wallace does a whole array of things in and with these essays – yes, for instance, he visits the Illinois State Fair, he goes to the shooting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and he spends a week on a Caribbean luxury cruise ship – and then he goes ahead and writes these pieces about his experiences in an extremely funny, unbelievably smart, reflexive and self-reflexive nerd-gonzo style, while he also ruminates extensively about American society and about the strata and members of said society who are predisposed to go to state fairs, go on luxury cruises, or move to Los Angeles (which is, according to Wallace, a city just as over-colored and surreal as you’d imagine based on the movies, therefore there will be no surprises there for anyone.)

In other essays (two out of the seven), Wallace deals with tennis – and when he talks about tennis, that’s also enlightening and more importantly: mesmerizing. (I’ll write more about this – about the mesmerizing quality of his writing.) Wallace himself used to play tennis in his teenage years, and he was quite a successful young talent. He never became a professional, though – and this half-in, half-out perspective adds a lot of intensity and charm to his words when he deals with this topic. Wallace evidently knows what he talks about when he talks about tennis, yet, compared to the real pros, he’s also just an enthusiastic amateur who’s easily enchanted by true greatness, so – even if I’ve never even held a tennis racket in my life – I have no choice but wonder about the complicated mechanics, trigonometry and other features of this beautiful sport with deep awe. (I don’t even watch tennis, let alone play it. And still – reading Wallace’s essays on the subject convinced me deeply and immediately that probably there’s no sport in the world more beautiful than tennis.)

In the remaining two essays, Wallace digs into topics of (contemporary) culture: Is the author dead or alive (cf. Roland Barthes)? What’s the connection between television, American culture, and irony? I have no words and talent to summarize these essays in a few sentences, but I can briefly testify to their effect. Reading these essays made me feel that I want to read Barthes, preferably right now, and that I want to lie down and cry huge tears of relief because I’ve never been able to explain – not even to myself – why irony makes me want to scream sometimes – but Wallace explains this. Beautifully, elegantly, logically.

And I promised something about mesmerizing. It’s just that: Wallace is mesmerizing. It seems no matter what he talks about, his words are a delight to read. Wallace was a writer so extremely smart and perceptive that theoretically, his work should be intimidating by the sheer force of its erudition. But it is not intimidating – perhaps because beside all his unearthly smartness, there’s a whole lot of stupid fears (of vacuum toilets, for example), illogicality, deep and basic curiosity and a general playfulness in his writing, and all this make his work deeply human and ultimately approachable. And this is something I can never put (and don’t want to put) differently: the writers who blow my mind the most are usually the ones who can make me believe that I am there. Anywhere, anytime. On the vomit-inducing ferry-wheel (even if Wallace himself hadn’t boarded it); in David Lynch’s unique mind, as it comes across Wallace’s unique mind; at the Elegant Teatime event on board of a Caribbean luxury cruise ship. And Wallace makes me believe all this.

On a related note: about two years ago I tried to read Wallace’s Infinite Jest – I failed. I thought at that time that Infinite Jest is wonderful, only – it’s too huge (in every sense), it demands too much from the reader, and I felt that the infinite jest is too much on me, the reader. Now, having read these essays I’m no longer afraid of this last one, and I plan to start Infinite Jest again the first convenient time – perhaps on a week-long luxury cruise while I’m being pampered to death.

And I feel this might be a good course of action in general in approaching Wallace’s work – starting with his essays. His essays are not that extremely demanding as Infinite Jest (to read Infinite Jest, I feel you must be 100% awake and ready and willing to think hard – to read these essays, it’s only highly recommended), and by reading them, you can learn relatively quickly whether you are compatible with Wallace’s prose or not, and receptive for his manias or not.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

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A couple of paragraphs of this memoir were enough to convince me that this was going to be a good read. And indeed.

The first two paragraphs run as follows:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

These paragraphs already demonstrate the talent of McCourt: his writing is beautiful and unsentimental, melodic, and captivating – it’s a pleasure to read. Even if the theme of the book is far from pleasant.

Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in New York, the first child of Irish parents. His parents lacked even the most basic ideas about what’s necessary to raise a family, yet, they went ahead and had four more children in quick succession, and after a couple of years they moved back to Ireland and eventually settled in Limerick, the home town of the mother, Angela. This is where Frank spent his childhood, in the deepest poverty – often hungry, going about with holes in his shoes, covering himself with coats instead of blankets, and in general, living a truly harsh life full of depravity.

The 1930s and 40s were probably not easy times in Ireland anyway, but the McCourt family sinks even deeper into squalor and poverty than even the most destitute of their neighbors. The McCourts have the worst of everything: more than one child dies in the family in a short period, and after each death, Angela sinks into an almost-catathonic state, which results in her neglecting her remaining children; the father, Malachy is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, who doesn’t feel any particular remorse when he regularly spends all his unemployment benefit on supporting his drinking habit, and when he accidentally lands a job, he can stand the life of responsibility for a maximum of three weeks; when the family moves, they always end up in the most uninhabitable house on the street; moreover, their relatives are not exactly friendly towards them, not the least because Malachy is from Northern Ireland, and „has the look of a Protestant”, and it’s an almost unforgivable offense that Angela, who comes from a good Catholic family, consented to marry such a man.

Speaking about Catholicism: it wasn’t only the helplessness and irresponsibility of the parents that made it tough for a child to grow up in Ireland in that period – the church had a big part in this, too. McCourt illustrates this with descriptions about the religious education of children, which mainly consisted of teachers and priests filling children’s minds with concepts such as sin, redemption, and so on – concepts they were way too young to grasp, but at least they quickly learned that whatever they do is wrong, consequently they deserve all the punishment and all the misery they have to live through.

Should you have any doubt, I’ll try now to disperse them: this is an extremely maddening book. There’s such an abundance of foolish, weak, unstable, irresponsible, careless, unreliable adults in this book (that is, in Frank’s life), and these adults tend to behave in such pitiful and disgusting ways that I can only wonder how Frank managed to grow up into a functioning adult (and of course I also wonder that he ever lived long enough to grow up into an adult, having for parents people who were incapable of providing for even the most basic needs of a child, and who tended to cure a sick child with outlandish home remedies for weeks before ever considering that the child might need a doctor.)

As regards, however, the way the book is written, there’s nothing maddening here. On the contrary, the writing is rich and fascinating. I already mentioned the free and enticing flow of McCourt’s language, and I must also mention his remarkable humor and sense of irony. McCourt doesn’t write as cruelly and cynically about his childhood, as, say, Dimitri Verhulst does in his memoir, The Misfortunates – McCourt is more gentle and forgiving. Of course there’s some bitterness from time to time, and it’s all the more cutting and strong because it’s so rare. For example, when Frank’s father decides to go to England to look for work, Angela – despite all her previous bad experiences and her awareness of her husband’s legendary irresponsibility and unreliability – hopes that this time everything will turn out just fine. In the book this looks something like this:

“[Angela to Frank:] Don’t cry, don’t cry. Now that your father is gone to England surely our troubles will be over.
Surely.”

This single „surely” (clearly the laconic, ironic comment of the adult McCourt), written on a separate line, says more about how wrong the naive Angela was in her hopes than several pages of detailed litany could say.

So all my awe and respect go out to McCourt for the way he managed to write so pragmatically, so ironically, so enjoyably about all those things that couldn’t have been the least bit enjoyable to live through.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Heartbreaking_Work

It’s not easy to say anything about a book whose writer is as self-aware as Dave Eggers. Eggers knows exactly what he created (and how excellent a work he created), and he says as much right at the beginning of this novel/memoir. For instance, in his foreword he claims that the first couple of chapters are basically perfect, while the rest is of a somewhat uneven quality. And this is exactly so, even though the uneven quality produced by Dave Eggers is such that almost anyone would be glad to write so unevenly in peak form.

Generally I’m not a great fan of forewords written by writers about their own works, because it seems to me that writers either tend to say lots of silly things about their work, or they tend to speak about it so self-critically that they make me doubt whether I really want to read their book after all.

Dave Eggers is an exception, though. Perhaps because he’s extremely smart, and what he says about his book is indeed right. Or perhaps because Eggers is the child of the postmodern-ironic age, and he knows that it’s almost impossible to create fiction without self-reflection – but also knows that all the usual postmodern self-reflection doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Sure, we all know it already – everything had already been written, every emotion had already been felt, every experience had already been experienced by countless others, and reflecting on this is a very postmodern thing – but it’s somewhat boring. Or more precisely: it can be boring when there’s nothing else besides the reflection. Because even though we know that our emotions and experiences are usually rather ordinary, they are still ours, and it would be stupid to completely hide behind irony and cancel everything we live through just because someone else already felt, already experienced the same.

This is why it’s amazing that Eggers went beyond the usual (let’s say: old-fashioned) postmodern. The way he writes, the way he reflects on himself, the way he talks out of the book – it’s all deeply and fascinatingly ironic (what else could it be around the year 2000), but the irony is not there just for irony’s sake – it means something (and I like it when something means something).

For Eggers, it seems to me, irony and the often very sick, very dark, desperately funny humor are not there because that’s the postmodern way to write and to experience – they are there because using these devices might be the best way for him to endure all kinds of horrors. Because what the novel is about is often horrible and almost insupportable.

One of the main story-lines is about how Dave Eggers, being in his early twenties, deals with the situation that both his parents die within a few weeks’ time from each other, and he inherits the task – still half a child himself – to raise his eight-year old brother. Their story is enough to shatter a heart – partly because of the obvious reasons, and partly because the way Eggers plays the role of a parent, and the way his brother adopts the role of a child being raised by another child is so beautiful and so chaotically zen that it almost makes me cry.

The other main theme is how, parallel to playing a parent, Eggers tries to be an average, that is, a completely out of this world, idealistic young guy in his twenties, someone who rushes head-first into experiences and never considers anything twice. And true, this story-line is somewhat uneven and less than perfectly written – but it’s strong, real, and it’s full of life.

Yes, this is a heartbreaking work, and not the ironic-distant heartbreaking kind, but the truly heartbreaking kind, even if it’s full of irony. And as regards the reference to a genius in the title – I’d just say that Eggers is mind-blowingly talented, extremely funny, and he writes the way I admire the most: without any apparent effort, he makes me believe, anytime, about anything that: I am there.