We-Learn-Nothing-jacket-1It probably won’t come as a surprise that my personal favorite book of the year, which actually came out in 2012, was Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing. A collection of essays on everything from Busyness and Friendship to Identity and Politics and Family to Death and Books (sometimes in the same paragraph), it’s as funny as anything I’ve ever read, grounded in personal experience (much of which is anything but funny), and unified by Kreider’s unwavering knack for gazing behind the curtain of everyday life (esp his own). If I had to describe his perspective, I’d borrow a phrase from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recently called herself “a liberal with a low anthropology–there are only about twelve of us.” Kreider may be one of the other eleven. Which isn’t to pigeonhole him as an ideologue. I mean, this is the guy who, in an essay about the Tea Party, dropped the following Haidt-esque paragraph that the Mbird in me just eats up:

“The truth is, there are not two kinds of people. There’s only one: the kind that loves to divide up into gangs who hate each other’s guts. Both conservatives and liberals agree among themselves, on their respective message boards, in uncannily identical language, that their opponents lack any self-awareness or empathy, the ability to see the other side of an argument or to laugh at themselves. Which would seem to suggest that they’re both correct.”

We’ve explored elsewhere what he says, but equally impressive if not more so is how he says it. Tim’s tone is personable without ever being ingratiating, wry but not detached, super smart yet never cerebral, incredibly observant but not the least bit showy–which is so much harder than it looks (just give it a try). Basically what I’m trying to say is that his prose is genuinely wise in a way that would never, ever feel comfortable with being called such, and the kind of uncontrived wisdom that will always be funny. It’s enough to make a person want to hang out with him as soon as possible (at, say, a conference)–to learn from the guy who insists he’s got nothing to teach you. Of course, maybe it’s just that his words really speaks to me, and that’s enough.

barcelona2It probably goes without saying that as gracious as Kreider’s approach is–and that’s not too strong a word here–We Learn Nothing is not remotely a religious book. In fact, Kreider goes on record numerous times to voice his skepticism. Not in a proud way, mind you, more of a matter-of-fact manner. But because his prose is so unflinchingly focused on the reality of life as it is actually lived (as well as the various underground rivers–e.g. self-justification, judgment, blame, sex, fear, envy, etc–whose overflow informs so much of our behavior and relationships), the resonances are too many to count. Lord knows he’s given me more fuel this year than pretty much anyone else, and I am grateful. Case in point this week comes from the chapter “An Insult to the Brain” in which Tim discusses visiting his mother in the hospital after she’d collapsed suddenly from kidney stone-related problems, and reading Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy out loud to her as she recovered:

Hospitals stays are one of the few times in adulthood when we have an excuse to drop all the busywork that normally preoccupies us and go to be with the people we love. You simply spend time with them, without any social occasion for it–a wedding or anniversary, dinner or the theater. You just sit there in the same room, making small talk or reading, offering the dumb comfort of your presence. You are literally There for them. When you’re a kid, this is one of the dullest, most dehumanizing things you’re forced to do–being dressed up in a navy blazer or a sweater vest and dragged to a family reunions to be fawned over like a photo in an album, your physical presence all that’s required of you. But if you manage to make it to some semblance of adulthood, just showing up turns out to be one of the kindest, most selfless things you can do for someone….

I probably don’t have to tell you that getting mad at your own mother for being old and sick does not make you feel like a model son or exemplary human being. Getting irritated at my own irritability did not improve matters. It made me only a little more forgiving of myself to understand that my anger was mostly fear.

I wonder whether this same fear isn’t beneath our twenty-first-century intolerance for waits and downtime and silence. It’s as if, if we all had to stand still and shut up and turn off our machines for one minute, we’d hear the time passing and just start screaming. So instead we keep ourselves perpetually stunned with stimuli, thereby missing out on the very thing were so scared of losing. Sterne’s stairway [ed. note: a frustratingly large chunk of Shandy takes place in conversations that happen during a single descent of a staircase] is a perfect metaphor for all those tedious interstitial moments we can’t wait to get through that make up most of our lives; we don’t even think of stairways as places in themselves, only as a means to get somewhere else. I remember children’s stories about kids who were granted the power to effectively fast-forward their lives, skipping all the homework and chores to get right to the good parts–drivers’ license, girlfriend, being a grown-up. Inevitably, they ripped through their whole lives in no time and found themselves suddenly old, looking back on a blank, elided lifetime without even memories to show for it.

We’re all so eager, both in life and in art, to get past this bullshit to the next Good Part up ahead. Believe it or not, Sterne’s telling us, this bullshit is the good part. All those digressions were the story… With his tortuous nonplot he’s trying to tease us out of our insatiable impatience for narrative, our silly urgency to know What Next… He knows that all journeys, and all stories, have the same ending, at a place nobody wants to go.