The Most Underrated Book of 2012: ‘We Learn Nothing’

Gabe Habash -- October 11th, 2012

If I could recommend one book to you this year, this is it.


My mom doesn’t read anymore. She still has the edition of The Canterbury Tales she used for her class on Chaucer; she’s read everything both Cormac McCarthy and Willa Cather ever wrote; there are a bunch of wrinkled old Bradbury paperbacks in our basement. But as reading has become a bigger part of my life, it’s become a smaller part of hers. I’ve tried to get her to read everything from Tobias Wolff to Marilynne Robinson, but nothing sticks. When I do manage to get a copy of something into her hands, she gets a few pages in and then gives up, usually for reasons that are infuriating to me (she quit The Sense of an Ending after five pages because it’s “too pompous”), and often our phone calls have ended with me petulantly promising myself and her that I’ll never offer a book recommendation again.

But I always do, I always keep saying the same thing when I read something I think she’ll like, listing a book’s mom merits in the tentative hope that she’ll bite. Which she usually doesn’t. During recommendations our dynamic usually reverts back twenty years: I sound like the child telling his mom about the new toy he wants, describing it in unnecessary detail, wishing that she’ll get the fairly unobvious hint to buy it for him. She listens patiently while I name all the reasons she should read it, always concluding by offering to buy it and send it to her. Most times the response is a swift change of subject on her part. But when I told her about Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, she surprised me by asking for it for her birthday before I could even offer.

There are a few things that make We Learn Nothing an exceptional book, but let’s start with this: the average human being can identify with every single one of its essays. Disappointment, lost friendships, lost loves–these are the themes that lead off the book. But gradually, over the course of its 220 pages, one can see that these difficult experiences are shaping Kreider’s perspective for the better, giving it the rust and weathering necessary for the poignancy and beauty that color the later essays in the book.

In certain ways, the book’s title is wonderfully ambiguous, both true and untrue: often the lessons Kreider learns disprove previous ones, but these latter lessons are only graspable because of previous lessons. The relative pessimism of the book’s opening essay–about the near fatal neck stabbing Kreider suffers and how we “take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best”–seems directly disproved by the later essay, “An Insult to the Brain,” which, among other things, is about remembering our best selves.

But about those essays. What you’ll find is a thoughtful treatment of human beings, and before you dismiss that as vague or as something you’ve read before, let me tell you this: We Learn Nothing articulated, for me, more human truths than any book in recent memory. When you’re done with it, it almost feels like finishing a textbook: you actually feel like you understand how things work a little better.

The aforementioned neck stabbing essay never actually gets around to telling you about the specifics of the neck stabbing: the important thing is not what happened, but that after Kreider almost died, he experienced a year of euphoric happiness, filled with the gratitude of dodging death, before finally reverting back to his pre near-death personality.

Another essay early in the book, “You Can’t Stay Here,” is about drinking’s overlap with aging. In the essay we get this great line, an example of the precision of Kreider’s inward-looking observations:

Squandering time is a luxury of profligate youth, when the years are to us as dollars are to billionaires. Doing the same thing in middle age just makes you nervous, not with vague puritan guilt but the more urgent worry that you’re running out of time, a deadline you can feel in your cells.

Kreider’s essays about his family and close friends are equally brilliant. There’s an essay about a childhood friend who just decided to stop being friends with Kreider once they both reached adulthood (“Without him, I’m like the last surviving speaker of a dead language”). There’s an essay about losing another friendship with an older male role model figure because of the friend’s total obsession with peak oil, to the point where he moves his family in preparation for the impending crisis (“It was becoming easier to ignore him than to try to keep up”).

There’s an essay about his criminal uncle, the black sheep to Kreider’s white sheep father, and the portrait of the two through Kreider’s words becomes an exploration of human flaws, the unfairness of how they’re assigned, and the impossibility of fighting against them. “One of the cruelest aspects of mental illness is that those afflicted become indistinguishable from their affliction; they are possessed by it.” Writing about his uncle, a lifelong screw-up and repeat lawbreaker, Kreider makes this comparison:

One of the most pitiable things about John Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” was his undisfigured arm–”a delicately shaped limb covered with fine skin and provided with a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied”–a glimpse of the man he was meant to be, all but smothered inside the aspect of a monster.

As the book progresses, we get closer to Kreider through the careful articulation of his most personal thoughts, and the final essays in We Learn Nothing are among the finest and most touching that you’ll find in any collection. We Learn Nothing made me cry and it made my mom cry. At times, it feels like Kreider’s dug a tunnel right to the emotional truth center in you: you feel these essays in your brain and your chest.  The previously mentioned “An Insult to the Brain” is about how Kreider read Tristram Shandy to his hospitalized mother during her recovery from a kidney stone that had caused septic shock. Like the rest of the book, Kreider toes sentimentality with his colloquial, cogent writing, but the conclusion of “An Insult to the Brain” features one of the more gut-punching emotional turns in any book this year. The moment alone is worth picking up the book.

Equally affecting is “Sister World,” about Kreider’s long lost half-sisters, whom he first meets in middle age. Kreider’s description of the feelings that accompany his first encounters with his siblings is wonderful, as he shows he can basically finds words to articulate even the most complicated emotions and situations: when his sister tells him that he’s family, Kreider states that he “felt whatever’s the opposite of heartbroken.”

We Learn Nothing is an exceptional work that puts what we’ve all thought into writing–Kreider has the ability to turn his personal experiences into broader examinations, and if you’re any human with an ordinary set of experiences and capacity for love, you’ll feel, at times, that Krieder has lifted the thoughts you take for granted right from your head and set them there on the page. The book’s final essay, a brief meditation on why we tend to experience happiness in hindsight, is a perfect encapsulation of what makes We Learn Nothing so special: it tells you things you already knew but hadn’t realized.

This is what I wanted to tell my mom about the book, though I didn’t have to. I didn’t even get the chance–she said, “Okay, order it for me,” and then segued right into a story she still likes to tell everyone (including me): how she used to read Shakespeare to me when I was in my crib, trying to stay awake longer than me but usually failing. When she thought I’d finally fallen asleep, she’d quietly try to creep out. But then she’d look back through the dark room and see my face peering through the bars, eyes wide open. And then she’d have to come back, exhausted, and read just a little more Shakespeare. On the phone, I didn’t say I’d heard this one before, because I knew why she was telling it: the story was on topic.

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