Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — Chuck Klosterman

Pop-culture essays age in dog years while retaining the occasional long-term insight that stays fresh by accident. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and mostly noticed age spots but also saw a few prescient moments, like this:

But Junod claims that he [made up details about Michael Stripe of R.E.M. in an article] in order to make people reevaluate how the press covers celebrity, and that’s valid. It’s valid because conventional celebrity journalism is inevitably hounded by two problems: Either the subject is lying, or the writer is guessing. Junod just happened to embrace both of those obstacles simultaneously.

The relationship of the Klosterman essay to say John Jeremiah Sullivan’s more recent Real World essay, “Leaving Reality” essay is obvious, but I think Kloosterman is also forgetting—or doesn’t want to simply say—that people read celebrity profiles in part because they want to be lied to. There is more than a little complicity in the lie, which changes the relations of the liar to the person being lied to. Or perhaps people want to feel false intimacy, which can be achieved partially through lying.

klostermanThe “subject” of these profiles—like the Michael Stripe one, or others in its genre—is probably trying mostly not to say or do anything that will make him or her look like an asshole when taken out of context. This can be shockingly hard to do, since the subject can’t tell when the writer is “guessing” or what the writer is “guessing.” In this context “guessing” can be another word for “interpretation.” One reason to read the New Yorker, incidentally, is that its writers appear to attempt to be scrumptiously fair and to avoid gossip—yet those are the very qualities that can give rise to accusations of being “boring.” One person’s boring is another’s accurate.

Imagine someone followed you around, all the time, for a couple of days and maybe for longer, and that the person has some bad will, or at least wants to make your life into a story. Could the person get some stuff that would make you look bad? Probably. I know that someone who could observe everything I wrote, and watch everything I do could make me look really bad. So smart celebrities avoid the real press, or only interact with the relatively small, non-jerk parts of the press—like The New Yorker.

Let’s take a specific example of an article about the world behind celebrity journalism: Sarah Miller’s hilarious “Anna Nicole Smith Kind of Made a Pass at Me.” I dramatically read parts of it to some friends the other night. This paragraph stands out in particular:

I wrote a first draft, in which, without spelling everything out, I attempted to give some real sense of that day. “I can’t publish this,” my editor said, and in her defense, I’m sure she was right. I wrote another version that made it sound like I’d had fun, which took hours and hours, because it was not real; writing something that is not real is not impossible, but it is very close to it. Through every long moment I worked on it I cursed myself for not taking that stupid trip to Magic Mountain, which would have made it all so much easier. Anyway, they published that version, and I got my money.

Miller describes what actually happened this way:

“Sarah Miller,” [Anna Nicole Smith] said, “You’ve got the prettiest blue eyes.” If we were in a movie, she’d have added, “I do declare.”

“Thank you,” I said formally.

“You ever had sex with a girl?”

It was none of her business, but I thought being honest might somehow give her back some of the dignity my mind had robbed her of, and I thought she might sense it, and that we might have a real conversation. “Yes, actually, Anna. I have.”

“Well, did you like it?” The word “like” lasted for several seconds.

“I actually did not,” I said. “It was a…misbegotten adventure.” I was pleased at how much I sounded like my father.

But that can’t be published, not at the time Miller was trying to get the story. Her editor, however, doesn’t want “real.” The number of readers who do is small. How many people watch PBS versus celebutainment shows? How many read The New Yorker versus US Weekly? The truth is hard and amusing fictions easy, so we choose the latter. In the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman writes that “accelerated culture [. . .] doesn’t speed things up as much as it jams everything into the same wall of sound. But that’s not necessarily tragic.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing as “accelerated culture,” but I am convinced that elements of what passes for low or contemporary or whatever culture do emerge from the collective decisions of millions of individuals.

But it is also worth stepping back and looking for larger patterns, which is what Klosterman almost but doesn’t quite do. He is a little too fond too of grand pronouncements. Like:

The main problem with mass media is that it makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no “normal,” because everybody is being twisted by the same forces simultaneously. You can’t compare your relationship with the playful couple who lives next door, because they’re probably modeling themselves after Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Real people are actively trying to live like fake people, so real people are no less fake. Every comparison becomes impractical. This is why the impractical has become totally acceptable; impracticality almost seems cool.

What is an “acumen of normalcy?” I’m not sure either. I had to check Google for “Chandler Bing” and “Monica Geller.” And has it ever been the case that “real people” have not tried to model themselves on “fake people?” If you read major religious texts as fundamentally mythological, as I do, the answer is “no:” people have been trying to emulate the Christian Bible and the Old Testament for literally thousands of years. Early novels with melodramatic endings encouraged their readers to attempt to reenact those ending. We seek narrative fiction in order to learn how to live—and that isn’t at all new. I don’t think there has ever been as firm a normal as we’d like to project on the past.

Eventually, with paragraphs like the quoted section, one comes to the conclusion that either everything is “fake” or everything is “real”—which is the sort of conclusion high freshmen hit when they’re in their dorm rooms at 2:00 a.m. The next day they still get up for class and go to breakfast. What is one supposed to do differently if one decides that real people are fake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the next essay in the Kloserman collection concerns the video game “The Sims.” Also not surprisingly, some SF writers have wondered what might happen if we get a wholly immersive and wholly fake world. One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox is that sufficiently advanced civilizations make video games that are so cool that they’d rather live in constructed worlds than explore the real universe.

That’s an interesting thought experiment, but like the high freshmen mentioned above no one does anything differently today based on it. Klosterman tells tales about meaningless arguments. Eventually, however, generative people come to realize that arguments that don’t lead to any sort of change or growth are pointless, and they get on with their lives. One sign of “low culture” may be that winning or losing the argument means nothing, and the participants should go build or make something instead.

Love Me Back — Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back is compelling, worth reading, and strange: it is a novel almost without psychology, in which the protagonist, Marie, acts without asking herself why she acts (“Whatever is in me that makes decisions is now full of an accretion of plaque”). It is a strange book too to read back-to-back with Peter Thiel and Blake Masters’s Zero to One: that book is about startups, innovation, change, and societies, while Love Me Back is about Sisyphean repetition, ancient industries, grunt labor, and sex. The two books o occupy different market worlds, and Thiel and Masters mention restaurants repeatedly as the sort of low-margin high-competition businesses one doesn’t want to be in. Marie is in the business from necessity and because it provides opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise: opportunities for sex and drugs, and opportunities to turn her mind off and make the money she can’t or couldn’t make otherwise.

Love_Me_BackThe novel’s chronology is chopped in an appealing way: Marie starts the story as an experienced worker and then jumps back and forward. It’s disorienting in a way that perhaps mirrors the disorientation of service at a restaurant. She is observational, though, from the start, imagining a customer thinking, “Would I be like Jordan?”, since Jordan “was a young blond waitress liberated by one of her customers.” The word “liberated” is key and yet Marie doesn’t seem to want to be liberated: she wants not slavery but structure. The novel is partially addressed to her daughter, who Marie bears as a teenager and whose father is unnamed, and in one early encounter with a man who “reminded me of a hairless mole we’d seen at the zoo” she snorts coke and then says:

I imagined her sitting on the counter, her short legs hanging off, swinging. I went back into the bedroom and said, I’m sorry, I have to go, I’m not well. I was shaking and I felt beautiful. I thought how beautiful it was that I had only one garment to put back on, my black cocktail dress there on the floor. I pulled it over my head. I don’t wear underwear. See you, I said. He didn’t try to stop me.

There is no antecedent to the pronoun “her:” we infer that Marie is speaking of her daughter. For a moment Marie feels something; it isn’t obvious that she often feels beautiful despite the action she gets. She senses without articulating it the power of glamour (one of her first restaurant men wears aviators, an object Postrel specifically discusses at the link). Marie is ambiguous in general; at moment she says “I hated staying the night because it was always different in the morning.” Was it? Is it? Why? The party ends, yes, and perhaps the illusion can’t be sustained and Marie wants the illusion. But relationships of any duration are the breaking of the illusion and the creation of something else in its place.

It is impossible to intelligently discuss Love Me Back without mentioning sex and the restaurant business. When Marie begins she says:

That was the best body I ever had, and the worst mind. I was seventeen. I was slender and strong and I also had swollen C-cup breasts. [. . . ] my mind was an open sore. It was black. I couldn’t tell if I was deep inside it or totally outside it. I would imagine being fatally cleaved all day long.

She never stops imagining being “fatally cleaved,” or so it would appear. The next three paragraphs spoils the novel to a minor extent, but the novel ends with Marie’s description of her getting ready for work, in a “professional” manner (with “professional” repeated often enough to make us skeptical of the term) and she says:

He starches everything to spec, so my long bistro apron can stand on its own and the creases in my sleeves will be so pointy that even at ten thirty tonight when I walk up to my last table for the first time they will see those creases and they’ll trust me just a little. My name is Marie, and I’ll take care of you tonight.

She’s where she started. Nothing changes in the restaurant business, or change happens so slowly that it isn’t perceived by the workers in the business. The work is cyclical, mythic, like economics prior to the Industrial Revolution. Hence the jarring feeling of reading Thiel and Masters next to Tierce. Love Me Back is about elemental matters, sexual and economic, and their book is about change. Both are beautifully written but in very, very different ways; Love Me Back took longer to enter but its proffered rewards turned out to be real.

The restaurant business is ugly and fascinating and un-PC. One man, Christopher, dispenses this advice, before he fucks teenaged Marie: “There’s only two times in a restaurant: before and after. You walk in, you white-knuckle it, try not to fuck up till it’s over and then it’s over. You made your money or you didn’t.” The third time in a restaurant business might be when you write about it. Marie likes it because exhaustion keeps her from thinking: she is “always that heavy, iron kind of tired” and her “exhaustion was metallic.” She likes it. She doesn’t have to think and doesn’t want to, which is curious given another seemingly throwaway detail: Marie has been admitted to Yale but shows few real interests or abstract thoughts. What is she interested in? Art? Science? Startups? Philosophy? We don’t see much. Certainly plenty of otherwise vapid students with good grades and test scores get into high-status, highly marketed schools, but Marie seems an extreme example.

She does learn outside of work:

I learned a lot of things while I worked [at Chili’s]. I learned how to sweep aggressively and efficiently. I learned how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is. I learned how to use work to forget. I learned how to have an orgasm and I learned I was a bad wife.

Many of those things are not like other things; they are so disparate that one learns both much and little about Marie at once. Marie learns that “there were rules to being a waitress. The main one was don’t fuck up.” Arguably that’s a rule of relationships too; the lack of punctuation, italics, or some other separation between the word “was” and “don’t fuck up” is also characteristics of the novel’s overall tone, which is chatty but not shallow. It seems like one should tire of it by the end, but I didn’t.

Marie rejects the support system she has: she leaves her parents because they treat her daughter more like their daughter, and while when she first leaves “They didn’t live far from us” she “didn’t know what to report. I hate that I hate my life?” The language here is clever: a weaker writer would’ve simply said “I hate my life,” but hating that she hates her life makes sense, and makes me pause: she chose her life and as such it doesn’t make sense to hate it. She’s too smart for simple teenage hate, but the perpetual restaurant life and the perpetual need for cash don’t sound fun either. Reading between the lines might also make Love Me Back a very subtle argument for making IUDs widely available, since they are tremendously effective and safe. But that would require acknowledging what people and especially teenagers want, and we live in a culture where that doesn’t happen; Marie doesn’t quite want to acknowledge what she wants, either. Want is somewhere in the rush to perpetual action, whether at the job or through sex. Let’s not ask why.

I hesitate to include the above paragraph because it makes the novel sound like a policy brief, which it isn’t. But it will in some quarters be read as one. Marie’s poverty is too persistent; for one holiday she says that “Thanksgiving dinner was the rice and beans with the onion and Ro*Tel added for flavor, which is what we usually ate, and the pie. He said the pie was the best thing he had ever eaten in his life.” But that’s also the night her husband learns that “it hurts when I piss,” and Marie knows why: “I knew that I had given Danny chlamydia and I knew I’d slept with my husband since then.” That undercuts whatever domestic success Thanksgiving might otherwise have entailed. One of the guys she chooses to fuck is described this way:

On his chest the tattooed face of a pit bull he said was the best friend he’d ever had, on his left calf a beckoning, bare-titted mermaid. Over his entire back a flaming skull, the fire burning up toward the nape of his neck [. . .] On his wedding finger a black band where a ring would go.

He is signaling his beliefs and attitudes effectively. During a three-way with two men, neither of whom is her husband, Marie says that one “Held me in place like that and I kept myself taut against him almost as if I were trying to resist or get away but it was the best thing I had ever felt with a man.” The divorce is almost foreordained. The other guys are too good, the variety too fun. A different sort of person could say, “Be wary of marrying teenage mothers.”

Does Marie learn over the course of the book? I think not. She does, however, speak, and her voice keeps me reading, and keeps me thinking about Love Me Back after I’ve moved onto other books, other worlds, other words. Marie’s words stay with me. She is like the narrator in True Things About Me or Catherine Millet in The Sexual Life of Catherine M. bizarrely, powerfully honest. I wish I’d read all three books long ago—perhaps the trajectory described in detail here would have been faster. But then again I might not have had the base of knowledge I do know, and into which Marie’s life can be incorporated and seen for what it is, rather than what others wish it to be.


Love Me Back is too intense to be for everyone and yet as you can gather above I love it. Here is an interview with Tierce, and here is a visual review.

“Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

I have read many lamentations about the evils of Amazon but have yet to see anyone effectively rebut Matt Yglesias’s points in “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.” The section about marketing is particularly interesting, since seemingly everyone agrees:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct. [. . .]

The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.

Publishers also appear to be bad at identifying which books readers want to read and which books readers don’t want to read; we’re now going to find that out by writers writing and then releasing their books into the wild.

Incidentally, though, it’s hard for me to find good books that are either self-published or conventionally published; if you have any suggestions please email me.

See also “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.”

Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power

Drugs Unlimited is an excellent companion to Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, since both are about the madness of the laws that forbid or restrict mind-altering substances. But Drugs Unlimited shares a flaw and strength with Last Call, too: both books are repetitive, with tons of minute historical detail that feels easy to skip. Unless you wish to become an expert in the subject both are better checked out of libraries than bought.

Drugs Unlimited follows a pattern and cites many, many examples of that pattern: Chemist or enthusiast comes up with a novel drug or drug variation; people try and like it; governments eventually ban it (there are chapters devoted to “LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s”). The process then repeats, though we’re now in a stage in which it’s difficult for governments to ban or regulate every conceivable substance, leading to an online free-for-all.

Drugs_unlimitedShould you wish to enter the free-for-all Drugs Unlimited provides an introduction and useful guidance. Drugs have become more widely available than ever in the last ten years, and perhaps the most interesting thing about their availability has been their lack of impact on society, which continues to function. Nonetheless we get a chronicle of the new drug world: “Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online.” That I’ve never heard of mephedrone makes me feel uncool.

It’s appropriate that I’m discussing this book on a blog, since Power writes:

Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

He doesn’t cite Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters but he might as well: one could take out the word “drug” and replace it with “readers” or “listeners” or any number of other verbs. Still, there is a persistent feeling that “the unmediated voices of users” are better informed than the highly mediated voices of the media, or of academics.

Drugs Unlimited is also a media critique: “Saunders also detailed [Ecstasy’s] darker, more negative sides in an honest appraisal that was sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.” Or: “My responses to [Ecstasy] and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them.” Or: “hysterical media coverage of the perceive threats of new drugs and corresponding knee-jerk government action seem to be [. . .] guaranteed.”

Power likes drugs: he’s taken them, and he writes sensuously of the way “drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination.” He should perhaps more strongly emphasize the dangers of mixing different drugs, since that along with poorly manufactured drugs is how people die. The extent to which schools, the “responsible” media, and other authority figures systematically lie about drugs is shocking. Although “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?” came out after Drugs Unlimited, it would fit into Power’s narrative.

Drugs Unlimited is lightly technical, and you’ll find sentences like these: “PIHKAL reveals in practical detail the chemical synthesis and human dosage of hundreds of psychoactive substances, each of which are in the phenethylamine class.” The book is neither well nor poorly written. It would not surprise me, however, were copies to travel to many unexpected places and inspired many unexpected people. Perhaps you’re one.

Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz

In “What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?” Tyler Cowen writes on whether Amazon’s much-publicized recent maneuvers against publishers are welfare-enhancing or welfare-destroying; most of the former answers tend to come from readers indie publishers and most of the latter answers tend to come from publishers and established authors. I however was compelled to comment on a separate and to my mind under-discussed issue: the lack of any sense of history in most of these discussions.

I’m most amazed at the way the same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers are now the ones decrying Amazon and supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying quality literary fiction.

Tangentially, I’m also amazed that, in rereading the preceding sentence, it seems to make sense and flow nicely without any commas. Perhaps it is the influence of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which I bought naturally from Amazon and which has me thinking about nesting and recursion more than any time since CS 102.

The link in the preceding paragraph also goes to Amazon.

Sexual Personae — Camille Paglia

It is shocking to me that I have gone for my entire adult life without anyone recommending Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book is marvelously full of ideas, making it easy to find ludicrous assertions next to brilliant ones. Rarely have I read a book so full of life yet with so much that is wrong. For example she writes that “Female tragic protagonists are rare. Tragedy is a male paradigm of rise and fall, a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are shadowy analogy.” The analogy might be “shadowy,” but it is also strained and dubious: there is no reason why sexuality has to be connected to tragedy. But Pagilia also writes from a different underlying philosophical perspective than most of her academic peers:

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric critique of Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rousseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but the Reign of Terror. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature [. . .] would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

sexual_personaeYet few modern sophisticates realize as much. Some contemporary fiction reflects the Paglian-Sadean view—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a sterling example—but for the most part it is absent. This passage is also admirable for being comprehensible; compare it to, for example, the passage quotes in “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?
Paglia has an important virtue not common to contemporary English professors: she writes clearly and therefore what she says can be evaluated.

The excerpt above is included to give a flavor for Paglia’s writing, but Sexual Personae is impossible to effectively excerpt from, since the book moves from analyses of ancient times up to the late 19th Century, and although common threads bind various sections together it is easy to lose sight of how exactly someone like, say, Emily Dickinson is related to Goethe. I can’t imagine many people will read or want to read the whole book from beginning to end; it covers a fabulous number of artists and periods, and for me the 19th Century and Romantic artists were the least interesting, though you may of course differ. The long introduction and the strongest chapters more than make up for the weakest ones. Even if I had or wanted to develop the knowledge necessary to write such a book I doubt I’d be able to sustain sufficient interest.

Contemporary humanities scholarship has become too focused on pedantry and minutia at the expense of being interesting. Perhaps humanities scholarship has always been like this but the problems are especially evident in an era when relatively few scholars appear to even believe that such a thing as “good writing” can exist. Still, I would like to see a stronger emphasis on “being interesting” and personal experience in most humanities journals. In talking with English professors at conferences about Harold Bloom, I’m struck by their high, level of hostility.

Not all sections are equally strong; the sections on Shakespeare, Sade, and Spencer are amazing, but the closer Paglia draws to the present the less plausible her interpretations become. But her attention to myth, to pattern, and to the ways art and life draw on each other excuse other flaws, which may be the flipside of strengths. As noted above, however, the number of fascinating moments is high:

Theatrical self-transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can never be reconciled with our time. From antiquity on, professional theater has been under a moral cloud. Autocrat, artist, actor: freedom of persona is magical but destabilizing. [. . .] Art remains an avenue of escape from morality. Actors live in illusions; they are skittish shamans, drenched in being.

and one senses that Sexual Personae is a virtuosic display that needs more attention. Hence this post.

Zero to One — Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future is out and you, like everyone, should read it; the book is of course about startups but its deeper themes are philosophical in nature: how we should think about and relate to the world. The writing is elegant and clear without having a distinctive style that can be easily labeled by calling attention to itself. It is Robertson Davies’s plain style, used well here.

Those who have already read Blake Masters’s CS 183 classnotes—I have—may be disappointed, since they form the core of the book. Nonetheless those notes have been cleaned up, organized, and updated with more recent examples. The thrust Zero to One is also beautiful and optimistic: the future is important, it can be shaped and improved, and individual choices matter. In believing those three things, and especially the second two, Thiel and Masters are swimming upstream against much of contemporary culture.

zero to oneOthers can no doubt comment on the technical aspects of the book, but I will note that much of what Thiel and Masters write sounds like an artists’ manifesto: “The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.” I very rarely read about business as “strange,” and yet the word is apt: all things are strange before they become domesticated by time and ubiquity. Artists usually focus directly on creating new things, but Zero to One describes “how to build companies that create new things.” More people extend the reach of what a single individual can do, but though Thiel has “noticed many patterns [. . .] this book offers no formula for success.” There is none, because innovation is by definition strange and new. He is trying to “help my students see beyond the tracks laid down by academic specialties to the broader future that is theirs to create.”

Academia has many problems and he notices them; I don’t think he uses this as a specific example, but one issue is treating school like a job or primary occupation. It shouldn’t in most cases be. It should be a day job that enables and ideally complements the other things one does. Teachers and professors rarely inculcate this attitude, however, because they themselves have been selected by the school system and have bought into its prejudices and cultures. Charter schools are important for many reasons, one being that they give an opportunity to create new schooling cultures. Montessori is specifically attempting to do that, and it is striking how many successful tech guys went through Montessori schools.

They note that “The business version of our contrarian question is: what valuable company is nobody building?” This question is harder than it looks” (23). The novelists’ version is, “What valuable novel is nobody writing?” One challenge, of course, is that different people have different values for “valuable:” I find most “thrillers” to be boring and un-thrilling, and most thriller readers probably find literary fiction the same.

This could be a description of most narrative fiction: “Our ancestors lived in static, zero-sum societies where success meant seizing things from others. They created new sources of wealth only rarely, and in the long run they could never create enough to save the average person from an extremely hard life.” Romance, the driver of so much fiction, is usually zero-sum: if the protagonist wins the guy or girl, no one else can; if the rival wins the guy or girl, no one else can, while in the real world there are a de facto infinite number of good guys or girls, provided the protagonist—that is, you—are willing to find and attract them. There are an infinite number of jobs, too, and one person getting a job doesn’t prevent someone else from getting another, or making another. Much narrative fiction taps into the zero-sum dynamic. Maybe it shouldn’t, or should more often explicitly question that dynamic.

Thiel and Masters are writing about everything, though they write specifically about startups. They discuss the nature of mass delusion (“Usually, it’s considered weird to be a 40-year-old graduate student. Usually, it’s considered insane to start a half-dozen companies at once. But int he late ’90s, people could believe that this was a winning combination”) and the psychology of founders (“Of the six people who started PayPal, four had built bombs in high school” and “We alternately worship and despise technology founders just as we do celebrities”); there is a hint of a Paglian reading of myth here, and such readings are too rare in a de-mythologized, de-ritualized society. There is more of the journey of the mythic hero in tech startups than is commonly supposed.

Psychology and cultural criticism have a long border; Thiel and Masters write that “competition is an ideology—the ideology—that pervades our society and distorts our thinking” (35). The opposite of competition, which may be something like cooperation or stasis, could be even worse: static societies and companies do not appear to do well or even exist in a world of competitive societies. But I don’t think Thiel and Masters are going in this direction: they are rather reminding us that it is useful to remember that we don’t live in a zero-sum world, largely because of technology and specialization. Most of human existence probably was zero sum, however, and that may explain some psychological quirks that aren’t terribly adaptive in contemporary information and industrial societies.

Competitive ideology has another problem too: it encourages us to compete with everyone, all the time. Picking good competitors is probably almost as important as picking good friends. Most competitive arenas are pointless. People often fight for control, and against other people like them:

Consider the opening line from Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity.” The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other. They grow even more similar as the feud escalates. Eventually, they lose sight of why they started fighting in the first place.

I’ve noticed this continually among professors, often specialists in the same area, who are from the outside identical and yet bash each other over minor differences. People more generally seem to seek fights for the sake of fighting, and without realizing that direct fighting is usually a terrible way to change minds—as has been known for decades. It’s often better to not respond to critics and instead to make something new. As Thiel and Masters write: “Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.” One can see this at an individual level or even a national level: think of the petro-states that exist as they do primarily because they can sell oil to innovation states.

I mentioned psychology already; here is another passage on that theme that also applies to artists, who are often skilled at ignoring or repudiating group beliefs / delusions:

The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue those activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them. Then when you apply your skills, you’re a little less likely than others to give up your own convictions: this can save you from getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes.

“Making things:” properly read, Zero to One is a recipe book for makers across disciplines. And “getting caught up in crowds competing for obvious prizes:” I remember talking about college sexual adventures with a friend who went to an Ivy-League school and who lamented that so many of the girls were, in his view though not in his words, neurotic achievement-obsessed basket cases. Maybe he misunderstood what those girls were seeking, but maybe he chose the wrong environment for that part of life.

Making things happens at large and small scales. Though we are still somewhat good at making things happen at small scales—as, say, the iPhone shows, or many Kickstarter projects show—we have become less ambitious and too obsessed with vetoes on large projects. Launching the Innovation Renaissance discusses this; so too does Thiel, in a cultural-political context: In the 1950s, people welcome big plans and asked whether they would work. Today, a grant plan coming from a schoolteacher would be dismissed as crankery, and a long-range vision coming from anyone more powerful would be derided as hubris.” We are collectively unable to even muster the political will to build denser cities and reasonable public transportation systems, let alone next-generation nuclear plants and systems for getting cheaply into space. This is a dark problem too rarely discussed by anyone.

It is also a tremendous and tremendously dangerous problem: “Without new technology to relieve competitive pressures, stagnation is likely to erupt into conflict. In case of conflict on a global scale, stagnation collapses into extinction.” There is a direct, underappreciated link between novelty, innovation, and survival. Artist and scientists are arguably at the forefront of ideas, though not always good ideas. Still, there is a brilliant statement at the end, which I’ve read more often in books targeted at novelists:

Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.

This is not an ordinary book about “business.” It is a book about everything, as the best books always are.

Almost every human endeavor is also about relationships, whether we want it to be or not:

The lawyers I worked with ran a valuable business, and they were impressive individuals one by one. But the relationships between them were oddly thin. They spent all day together, but few of them seemed to have much to say to each other outside the office. Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Many seem to think it’s a sacrifice necessary for making money. But taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: it’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long-term future together. If you can’t count durable relationships among the fruits of your time at work, you haven’t invested your time well—even in purely financial terms.

This is again a good description of academia, and it’s also a restatement of the Coase theorem, which I wrote about in similar terms at the link. In most life domains a purely transactional model makes everyone poorer in the ways that count.

Thiel and Masters note that in school “Students who don’t learn best by sitting still at a desk are made to feel somehow inferior, while children who end up defining their identities in terms of this weirdly contrived academic parallel reality.” If you’re awake and paying attention to the school system, it’s hard not to notice its many bizarre perversities—and its problems harm not only the low achieving students but also the high achieving students. Although I spent years being a dumbass, I mostly got tracked to the high-achieving parts of school, and as an adult discussions with others who were stuck on the high-achieving track involve the ways the value system of that track warps those on it. But no one or almost no one tells students that at the time, and parents, teachers, and administrators are in on the conspiracy. Maybe that’s why so many Silicon Valley bigwigs want their kids in Montessori or similar schools.

Moreover, the prestige / rivalry system reinforces a zero-sum mindset, at least for those who buy in, as Thiel did (and only barley escaped):

Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

I wonder if Thiel and Masters have read Excellent Sheep yet. Deresiewicz has similarly scalding views, though he comes from a different vantage point and throws some pointless, ill-formed bombs at startup culture. Thiel and Masters, however, ask the deep questions, and give major structural advice that one rarely hears from professors: “You should focus relentlessly on something you’re good at doing, but before that you must think hard about whether it will be valuable in the future.” I have focused relentlessly on writing better novels, but so far it has not proven valuable in a financial sense. If it weren’t for other ways of monetizing my skills, I would be doing something else, and probably not even writing this post.

Let me return, for a moment, to relationships, since your friends and surroundings count, as Tolkien knew and many others know: “it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risks.” This is another, accurate, critique of academia, and a reminder to attend to our environment. Thiel does say that “a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry.” Even the lone-genius model appears less true than is often imagined: reaching into the biographies of famous artists tends to reveal an ecosystem of friends, rivals, mentors, and helpers. Hemingway famously derided creative writing classes, but he spent much of his early working life showing drafts of his work to Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Few of us succeed fully in art or business without helpers along the way: hence, perhaps, the Joseph Campbell model that calls for such helpers in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Even in myth the hero does not succeed alone: Frodo and Aragorn need Gandalf. Luke Skywalker needs Han and Obi-Wan. In His Dark Materials Lyra finds an array of helpers.

There are sections I think wrong, like the one on page 78 when Thiel and Masters criticize contemporary Silicon Valley buzzwords, which may reflect generations of learning about startups and the startup environment. Thiel and Masters say that “Secrets about people are relatively underappreciated,” while the opposite is true: we call secrets about people “gossip,” and most narrative art is relentlessly focused on personality, competitive, and “secrets” about people that almost always turn out to be about sex, money, and death. The supposed “secrets” that people hold tend to be more uniform than not. That pattern has persisted in Western art for millennia: the ultimate “secret” at the heart of Oedipus the King (first written circa 400 BC) and Game of Thrones is the same. The only human secret that matters is that one shouldn’t be surprised by human secrets.

These are quibbles about an otherwise great book. Great books do not have to be long. This one isn’t. They have to pack a lot of ideas in the space they h ave. This one does.

To reiterate the first paragraph of this post, you need to read this book. The less you think you need to read it, the more you do. It is in some ways similar to Rework, another anti-conventional-business business book written by nerds. Zero to One is a tremendously important book; although I admire and appreciate trivial books, particularly because most books including my own are, find one that is important—which does not mean “pompous” or “serious”—matters. You should read it. Your friends should read it. Its ideas should be common currency, readily known whether accepted or rejected. It is possible that the future of the world depends on Zero to One finding the right person at the right time, which is true of few other books.

The physical book is itself nicely made; though the binding appears to be glue rather than thread, the paper quality is high, and much higher than most books in its class and most contemporary books, period. The physical book reflects their emphasis on long-term thinking, as too few physical books do. One can read publishers’s opinions on their own works in the ways they choose to manufacture books. Those opinions do not appear to be high. If publishers have a low opinion of their own products, what should investors think?


Here is a good Fortune profile of Thiel. And

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