Customer Reviews


37 Reviews
5 star:
 (6)
4 star:
 (8)
3 star:
 (9)
2 star:
 (7)
1 star:
 (7)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review


96 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest, Moving, Harrowing
I just finished devouring this book which I ordered immediately after reading the excerpt published in the New Yorker. I'm from approximately the same generation as Kirn and felt a bit like he was sharing a dirty secret when I read the original excerpt. Most of the book, with the exception of two chapters at the beginning and one at the end, focusses on his Princeton...
Published on May 20, 2009 by Someone's Mom

versus
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Midwestern narcissist goes to Princeton
The title of the book suggests that Kirn is diagnosing a cultural phenomenon and to a certain extent, that is true, particularly since Kirn is well aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald and others have familiarized us with the cultural divide between the old money east coast and the rugged individuals who become crazed (but why?) with yearning for their approval.

At...
Published on August 9, 2009 by Always Reading


‹ Previous | 1 2 3 4 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

96 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest, Moving, Harrowing, May 20, 2009
By 
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
I just finished devouring this book which I ordered immediately after reading the excerpt published in the New Yorker. I'm from approximately the same generation as Kirn and felt a bit like he was sharing a dirty secret when I read the original excerpt. Most of the book, with the exception of two chapters at the beginning and one at the end, focusses on his Princeton years -- and his "dirty little secret" is more or less that the elite institution he entered in the early 80's democratized, but only sort of. In other words, he had what it took to get into Princeton, but he didn't have what it took to be accepted at Princeton, which, according to him was: a sailboat, cases of champagne, rich family and connections. The eating clubs held some form of secret interviews and people like him were rarely accepted, and his roomates didn't seem to understand that anyone could actually be poor and not be able to afford things like new furniture for the suite.

But in this book, he focusses on so much more than the living situation -- he talks about the awakening he experienced when he discovered that the English department was more interested in literary criticism than in literature, and he admits that he kind of "faked his way through" large chunks of his education (what psychologists would call 'the imposter syndrome.') Parts of the story are quite scary, leading up to what he refers to as a breakdown.

Personally, I would have liked to have known a bit more about how he eventually made peace with his experiences at Princeton, how he has fared since then, and most importantly, where he plans to send his own children for their education.

I feel that his story paralleled my own story at Wellesley, which I entered at approximately the same time period. I never understood the arcane social sororities, or the people who had been to Europe several times, or the girls who arrived with thousands of dollars worth of clothes and headed directly to the Harvard Business School to snag a husband.

One finishes the book with a sense of his own loss. It's as if he was so taken aback and ill-prepared that although he was given an opportunity to experience the Ivy League education, ultimately he did not have the tools to really exploit it or make the most of it. He describes a sense of loneliness, a lack of connection with the teaching staff, and summers spent shelving books in the basement of the library -- while others were out scoring lucrative internships and making important connections. I identified with that part of his story too, as someone who spent most of my time reading books and studying languages, but never quite understood the whole social universe of college. It's nice to know I wasn't the only one.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read the original essay!, July 22, 2009
By 
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Walter Kirn was a Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence at the University of Chicago this past year. When a student organization screened the movie based on his novel Thumbsucker, Kirn dropped by to do a Q&A. He briefly mentioned this book, which he was writing at the time, expanding an essay he wrote in The Atlantic about his life at Princeton.

When I heard the title, "Lost in the Meritocracy," I immediately searched for it online. Like Kirn, I also hailed from a relatively small town and graduated from one of the Ivy League universities. I was thoroughly disillusioned by the sharp contrast between the ideals of an "Ivy League education" (whatever that signifies now) and the reality of a university filled with flippant super-rich kids, recruited athletes, distant professors, peers who cheated relentlessly ... I hope that there are more authors like Kirn who can make public the disheartening state of undergraduate education in the U.S.

But I strongly advise you to read the original essay "Lost in the Meritocracy" first. I am a huge fan of this essay: it is tighter and has a clearer purpose.

There is some fresh material in the book that is well worth it. One of the first chapters describes Kirn's experience with "Uncle Admiral," a sort of mentor when he was very young. It ends with perhaps the wisest words in the book: "Knowledge is a reckoning, he taught me, a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position" (p. 23).

The text of the "free verse" poem that Kirn wrote at Macalester in order to win a contest and pad his résumé is included in the book--and is laugh-out-loud funny. The ultimate result of rich roommate dispute is cathartic and gleefully satisfying; I'm surprised it didn't make the original essay.

However, much of the new material is unnecessary: Kirn's reading comprehension units in elementary school (Yes, while Kirn's "undereducation" began even elementary school--which was also geared toward superficial learning, wow!--it does not make for good reading); his very unsexy description of his teenage trysts (just see p. 73); his odd summer in Munich, which of course involved suppositories; his trip to New York City, which of course involved cocaine and rich people who lived in Truman Capote's building ... These longish anecdotes spiral into indulgent memoir and are honestly not worth reading.

"Lost in the Meritocracy" was so much better as an essay, rich with humor and insight, revealing a world that I fear is still not widely known. Expanding (or bloating) it into some sort of forced Bildungsroman-slash-romp dilutes the knowledge gained from his experiences, at quite a high cost.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you thought your undergraduate education was messed up..., May 23, 2009
...then read this book. I raced through it in an evening as it was entertaining to say the least. It was also a very personal and somewhat dark account of a very bright person going through public school followed by the Ivy League. I almost blew a gasket laughing at the 10th grade computer class. I think the college years will ring true with many people from sub ruling class backgrounds that find themselves among people who life in a way alien to the middle and working classes - you don't even have to go to an Ivy League school to experience this.

My initial plan was to pass this along to my high school aged daughter but I don't know that I'll do that now. The book is probably better enjoyed with the perspective of distance between the reader and the offending four years. I don't want to scare her.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Midwestern narcissist goes to Princeton, August 9, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
The title of the book suggests that Kirn is diagnosing a cultural phenomenon and to a certain extent, that is true, particularly since Kirn is well aware that F. Scott Fitzgerald and others have familiarized us with the cultural divide between the old money east coast and the rugged individuals who become crazed (but why?) with yearning for their approval.

At this point in history, however, Kirn also comes across more as a postmodern Holden Caulfield, a callow young man spotting phonies and nursing narcissistic injuries at Princeton and in Europe, accosted wherever he goes by sexual predators (I'm not making this up). The women he meets seduce and abandon him after they've had their fill of his smoldering macho aggression (again, I'm not making this up although I do wonder if Kirn is). In Germany, sinister figures straight out of Cabaret threaten him with sodomy. His almost unbelievably bratty suitemates, like Noel Coward caricatures, exploit and humiliate him, as does a reputedly gay, fabulously wealthy big man on campus (Kirn is pretty sure that this guy didn't sexually assault him). He wins an obscure fellowship that sends him to the prestigious British University of his choice, and even pays for an annual case of wine, by fulfilling the fantasies (so he says) of the dead heiress who endowed it.

The book ends with Kirn about to depart for his fellowship--at home in rural Minnesota, drugged this time not with the plentiful coke or psychedelics he discovered at Princeton but rather with homely cold medicines, discovering "the thoughts of others" from the Twain and Dickens novels on his mother's bookshelf.

I give this 2 stars because Kirn is an excellent writer and kept me arguing with him and hoping for something better through the whole volume. He lost three stars (and if you read the book ,you'll learn how important these stars are to him) because he seems aware of his narcissism only superficially and doesn't convincingly connect it to the fates of others in the seductive, exploitative meritocracy that brought him to Princeton as fresh meat for the rich and powerful. In other words, his interest in others, at least in the pages of this memoir, never goes beyond the words of long dead others found in books. Anyone else lost in the meritocracy just isn't smart or sexy enough, I guess.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 3.5 stars -- His story, but not necessarily yours, December 25, 2009
By 
hh "hh01" (pdx United States) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Why write this now? At 50-something? I think that some things simply take a lot of time to sort out: even half a lifetime. For lower and lower middle class kids in America, the idea of a true meritocracy is a dream ("you can be anything you want"). Many kids who do well in high school buy into the dream whole-heartedly. And when they learn that "it ain't necessarily so," the hard insight can be devastating. This is not to say that people can't create their own destinies regardless of where or whether they go to college. But Kirn's story is about HIS experience, his hard-learned lessons and how it shaped him (actually, threw him for a long time). I don't see whining so much as ideals in free-fall and a lot of thrashing about when they (and he) hit bottom.

If someone was born after 1975, it may be hard to understand why Kirn so naively bought the dream. But back then idealism was in the air and many folks breathed it in deeply. I did, too. In 1974, when I interviewed at Princeton (a great school), I was shocked to have my personal "student interviewer and guide" dressed in Brooks Bros type clothing (I wore dark jeans and an open collared white shirt, no jacket). I was more shocked when the FIRST question he asked was: "what does your father do?" His was impressively "titled" in a prestigious NY bank. Mine had a nice title, too, but in the public sector and not much money to go with it. As soon as he realized that, the student guide looked over my head for the remainder of the tour/interview. I felt blessed to find out that, although Princeton is a fantastic school, it wasn't right for me. (The school I ultimately chose was filled with kids slightly embarrassed about their parents' celebrity status, which was equally funny, but more bearable.)

And so, I was spared at least part of Kirn's experience. I was also a bit more savvy than Kirn. When rich kids said, "let's stay in the protest and get arrested," I knew their parents would spring them without batting an eyelash and mine could not -- I might even put my scholarship in jeopardy. So, while they were willing to accept me and use the word "we" freely (different coast, different mindset), I needed to see through that and understand that "we" was conditional and temporary. I don't blame them for that, but I can see how rotten it might have been if I didn't keep a sober view of things. I also quickly found a circle of my own where I didn't have to be so guarded. Perhaps if I were more clever I could have figured out some way around the obstacles I perceived, but I didn't. And on the bright side, it made me more of an independent. I sought out opportunities based upon true interests vs what friends were doing (and still do).

Read the book to learn about a slice of life from a slice of time. Don't generalize too much, but distill what you can. Certain realities are likely to be timeless; be aware of them, but also push the envelope some. You never know what could happen.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Too Smart for his Own Good, June 29, 2009
By 
porkchop (Richmond, VA) - See all my reviews
This is an interesting memoir--there's a lot more to it than the typical East Coast meets Midwest culture shock.

The author is eager to create an image of himself as a totally craven, status hungry tool of his own ambitions. He complicates that image, though. If he really spent all his time feverishly plotting nonsense papers, injecting drugs, having barely consensual sex, and trembling with worry about what an ingratiating, anti-intellectual phony he was, hidden away in his room, how did he get two plays into production? How did the provosts pick him out as a candidate for a major scholarship? Is this an indictment of the school and it's blindness to fakery? I don't think so. The narrator is so hard on himself that you don't feel like Princeton or it's students are the enemy. He doesn't blame them for buying what he was selling. He makes it clear that he probably couldn't have been rescued even if he wanted to be (which he probably did). While he has strong criticisms for his faculty and fellow students, he doesn't blame anyone for failing to discourage him from believing his own propoganda.

I agreed with his psychiatrist--I don't think everything in this book is true. He came across as honest, though. There was a whole person in this book. The contradictions made it come across as complex rather than inconsistent.

I also enjoyed the rare lines of dialogue, where the author came across as almost shockingly arrogant--totally fitting in with his peers. It was a pretty fascinating, drug-addled struggle to figure out whether he would experience the horror of being discovered as a poser, of the horror of finding out that everyone else is a poser too.

This is a really interesting view of college--almost too cynical, but not quite. I really enjoyed it.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Der Mann ohne Eigenshaften, ver. 2.0, June 5, 2009
Kirn posits himself as the archtypical "man without qualities" who has the components of excellence without the consciousness of it, sort of a gung-ho cipher who found himself trapped on a high end mousewheel where the goal seems to be the spinning of the wheel itself rather than a defined endpoint where the adventure has satisfied the quest.

Is this Kirn's inner space being projected onto his environment, or is it the environment impinging on Kirn's inner space ? To what degree was Princeton a Rorschach inkblot, to what degree did Kirn see the process of higher education for what it is and live to tell the tale ?

It appears that he clearly enough saw that academia IS an industry, and woe betide anyone so naive to assume that it isn't a self perpetuating business in a multitude of ways, and he saw that it is a Weberian bureaucracy that is structured somewhat like a board game that one has no choice but to strategically "play" if one designs to succeed...

The implicit question, unasked by Kirn, is how does one take responsibility for shaping one's learning experience within the game structure ? Is Princeton under some kind of collective obligation to instill character, perception, trancendence, taste, or wisdom ? Are those properties of the self that one must choose and work toward ?

When one considers that Nelson Mandela emerged from a 27 year sentence on Robben Island to become a world leader in spite of every obstacle being placed in his path, it is awfully hard to feel overmuch sympathy for a young Walter who was forced to endure his infantile suitemates, coarse sex, mean women, and bad drugs. Did Princeton institute a ban on free will ?
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Aptitude's Hollow Man", June 10, 2009
By 
Stanley H. Nemeth (Garden Grove, CA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Walter Kirn has written a memoir of considerable distinction. First of all, his prose is marked by a signal talent for description. The sights and smells of the world he's imaginatively recreating are precisely captured, whether he's talking of Ms. Hannah, a grammar school teacher whose "layer of floral essences...distinguished her from the other teachers - old ladies who reeked of witch hazel and baby powder," or of the Woody Woo Building at Princeton, "a sprawling, stylized Greek temple barricaded from the outside world by an array of slim white columns shaped like vertical strips of Elmer's glue."

In addition to his vivid, beautiful, frequently witty language and elegant sentences, Kirn has constructed a narrative which conveys a complex worldview. Far from being yet another tale of a rube from the Midwest who discovers that the class system is still alive and well at Ivy League universities, Kirn's account calls into question the mindset that the later SAT and its goal of a meritocracy have brought into being. His is a two-sided critique, aimed both at the remnants of the old-boy network but even more so at its presumed "aptitude is all," multiple choice test replacement. Neither program, in Kirn's view, has any use for genuine education. Those students still into social class snobbery are of a species basically on vacation at Princeton, after which they'll engage in the real business of life which involves preparing clients' lists, hiring tax attorneys, remodeling summer mansions, etc. SAT scholars, on the other hand, if they are like English major Kirn himself, are devoted merely to passing multiple choice tests, parroting the pretentious lingo of their "confused" deconstructionist professors, and reading as few books as possible. The point of education is thought to be solely advancement and fame, not a broadening of one's own horizons.

By the end of his memoir, Kirn happily comes to see both his emptiness and lopsidedness, and we at last encounter him beginning to devour great books, ancient and modern, for their own sake, not for any quest to win advancement. As he comes to evaluate his life, he wittily concludes that "instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in."
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a bizarre life, revisited, January 12, 2010
Like other readers, I was intrigued by the title of this book. However, neither the title nor the subtitle communicates what this book is about: a very successful novelist reminisces about educational experiences that took place more than 25 years ago.

As others have noted, it's not clear why Kirn wrote this book. It's almost a case study of a specific educational trajectory. A smart young man learns how to play the education game early on, then finds himself in way over his head at an Ivy League university. Much of these experiences seem to take place in a drug induced haze, punctuated by sexual encounters that range from frustrating to bizarre.

We can evaluate the book as a memoir. Kirn's story is not especially unique. If he hadn't written a handful of best sellers, I wonder if he would have found an audience. Worse, there's no context to read the book and no theme. It's hard to argue that the system is broken when you're sabotaging your own success with drugs and other escapist behavior. It's even hard to argue about the system, which must have changed in twenty-five years.

I kept wondering why Kirn didn't have a confidante during his Princeton years. Did he even consider the school's counseling service? An adult with any kind of business sense would have seen through his roommates' ploy, as they purchased furniture without consulting him and then sent him a bill. I'm not a lawyer but I suspect they had no basis to ask him for money; their action was more like extortion. Princeton's response to Kirn's acting out may seem benevolent but I wonder why nobody talked to him about what happened.

The roommates sound depressingly real. Crazy roommates are a fact of college life, especially in some of the more elite universities. A badly assigned roommate can impact a student's success and happiness.

Looking at the book as a case study of a smart but misguided young person, I would say Kirn's experience reinforces a belief I've held for a long time. Success depends on a combination of recognizing what environment will support you, even if it's not the most famous or elite. Over and over I've seen people turn down top schools and famous companies to get to places where their own unique styles and talents can flourish.

A little luck doesn't hurt either. It seems odd that Kirn never encounters a helpful, supportive person or catches a break. If he'd chosen a different major or been assigned a different place to live, I wonder what might have happened. Of course, it's possible that opportunities did present themselves while he was too inwardly focused to notice.

Incidentally, I was amused by Kirn's dialogue with his psychiatrist on pages 15-16. Kirn, now in his thirties, gets ready to quit therapy. In what seems to be a desperate act to hold on to his patient, the psychiatrist asks him to consider just one more thing.

First, the shrink suggests, Kirn might have idolized his father but was abandoned. No thanks, Kirn says, looking at his watch.

But surely, the therapist suggests, "you idolized someone once...but then he abandoned you or you felt he did."

Kirn immediately connects, remembering the man he called "Uncle Admiral."

I can't help wondering what would happen if Kirn said "No." Just about everyone has looked up to someone who either left, was left behind and/or turned out to have feet of clay. Maybe I've been in marketing too long, but I can't help noticing that psychiatrist seems to be a very good salesman. If Kirn stuck around for more therapy, I hope he got his money's worth.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read the first third, toss the rest out., June 8, 2010
After reading Walter Kirn's book I wasn't sure which of us liked him less.

The first third of Lost in the Meritocracy has some momentum. Young Walter is a personable enough lad who has learned to work the system and reap the dubious rewards offered to him. He speaks movingly about a relationship with an elderly neighbor, he paints an evocative portrait of his hometown's flaws and failures, he sets the stage for his culture clash at college. There, at Princeton, the 'real' Walter Kirn emerges and it is a struggle to remain in his company. Filled with contempt and anger for himself, resentment and passive aggression for his classmates, Kirn spends the next two thirds of the book explaining how he embraced his own destruction. If I didn't know Princeton alumni (disclosure, I am not one, nor did I ever apply) I'd think the school turned out nothing but empty shells.

It is not until the final pages of the book that the author reveals the other side of Princeton. There were students working on their education, students more interested in reading Truman Capote than snorting drugs in the apartment below his. He doesn't seem to like these people much. He doesn't seem to like anyone much, even the elderly neighbor he opened the book with. In order to embrace an antihero, the reader must feel some affinity for the character. I felt no affinity for college aged Walter. When he has his alleged breakdown, when he decides that he was not wrong to embrace a life of mirroring expectations from others, I just don't care anymore. I don't want him to succeed. I resent the time we've spent together, it feels wasted. His uplifting ending depresses.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 2 3 4 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

Details

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by Walter Kirn (Hardcover - May 19, 2009)
Used & New from: $1.43
Add to wishlist See buying options
Search these reviews only
Send us feedback How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you? Let us know here.