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We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess Hardcover – January 6, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In a book full of startling facts, this might be the most startling: of the 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. annually, “something approaching half could be prevented . . . if people simply managed to lead healthier lives.” But this isn’t a book about living a healthier lifestyle. It’s an exploration of “the challenge of moderation in the face of freedom and affluence.” The weapons of mass consumption, Akst calls them, are everywhere. We eat too much food, spend too much money, have too much sex. It’s not that we lack willpower; rather, the temptations have vastly multiplied over the years. In the course of defining the reasons why self-control is becoming such a rare commodity, Akst examines our tendency to blame everything except ourselves, citing a woman he met who blamed excess weight on genetics, fast food, advertising, and high-fructose corn syrup—all while polishing off two plates of waffles and cream cheese. It is this kind of willful self-destruction, Akst concludes, that’s killing us in greater and greater numbers. A very thought-provoking and colorfully written book. --David Pitt


"You wouldn't be able to stop yourself from reading this book! Daniel Akst is among the sharpest, most perceptive writers of his generation, and he is in fine form in We Have Met the Enemy."
-Gregg Easterbrook, author of Sonic Boom

"This book entertains even as it pokes at our most sensitive spots. Daniel Akst handles the touchiest heretical ideas with charm, humor and painless scholarship. With no ax to grind, no cause to serve but reason he opens up the foregone conclusions by which we live and leaves a reader with new and alternate views of ourselves and others. Like the finest essayists Akst makes the deepest ideas fascinating and fun to read."
-Nicholas von Hoffman

"The more a society progresses, the bigger a problem self-control turns out to be. If you wish to be ahead of the curve for understanding America's problems, Dan Akst's excellent and informative book is the place to start."
-Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University, and co-creator of the blog The Marginal Revolution

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (January 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202818
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202810
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #901,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The Pogo comic strip, with its characters set in the Okefenokee Swamp, featured an uncommonly effective and entertaining mixture of sophisticated wit and humor that was enjoyed on different levels by a wide variety of readers over the years. Perhaps Pogo Possum's most well-known line was, "We have met the enemy, and he is us," from which this book sources its title. Appropriately so, I'd say, since the book deals with a number of serious/sophisticated issues, though sometimes in an irreverent way.

In Chapter 2 (out of 21 chapters covering about 275 pages) we're told that about one million Americans die prematurely each year due to behavioral risk factors such as smoking, drinking, being overweight, having high blood pressure and being physically inactive. If you think a lack of self-control is a contributing factor in these instances--as author Daniel Akst does--then maybe it's reasonable to spend some time thinking more in depth about the topic of self-control. In this vein, the book's subtitle, "Self-Control in an Age of Excess," should let you know what to expect.

Some of the author's points are reinforced with interesting examples from modern life. For example, perhaps you haven't heard of the LifeSeat 600. Well, that's a motorized toilet designed to smoothly raise a person of up to 600 pounds to a standing position. (The manufacturer is now working on a LifeSeat 750.) Or, did you know that studies of teenagers show that self-discipline is a better predictor of academic performance than IQ? Issues of self-control being as common as they are (ask Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Tiger Woods ... the list could--and does--go on), there is plenty of material for the book to draw upon.

The book does not read like a Puritan lecture, fortunately.
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Format: Hardcover
I loved reading this book, for its insights, humor and masterful synthesis of material and ideas.

In "We Have Met the Enemy," Daniel Akst tackles some of the biggest questions of our times, questions that we're often afraid to ask because they require us to think about thorny issues like freedom, willpower, human nature, and how to make sense of many of our social ills: obesity, alcoholism, overspending, etc. The term "personal responsibility" has been hijacked by conservatives over the last few decades, and Akst's topic of self-control unavoidably wades deep into those waters. His politics appear to be an interesting combination of libertarian and liberal. Yet he eschews knee-jerk hysteria and political correctness and instead brings to the discussion a great deal of nuance, thoughtfulness and scientific evidence. He's grappled long and hard with how we as a society can balance freedom with the many temptations it brings.

Somehow he manages to address these issues with a sense of humor that often had me laughing out loud.

Along with the intellectual courage of his arguments, what impressed me most about Akst's book was his astonishing range of references. From Odysseus to 19th century European novelists to Gnarls Barkley, Akst seems to have a voracious appetite for high and low culture, and he weaves it all seamlessly into his writing. In the wrong hands, this might seem pretentious. In this author's hands, it seems totally natural and effortless. The book is a great read -- somehow completely accessible while being intellectually challenging. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Before I get into the purpose and content of Akst's book, let me first say how much I enjoyed his passion and his prose. This is a wonderfully written and timely rant (perhaps a bit overdue - we should have been on this pre-recession). Akst's thesis is the study of "the challenge of moderation in the face of freedom and affluence." It is a book that examines self-control and the challenge of willpower in a world where temptations have evolved and expanded beyond many's ability to manage.

As the author explains, "Yet while temptations have multiplied like fast food outlets in suburbia, the superstructure of external restraint that once helped check our impulses has been weakened by loosening social constraints, the inexorable march of technology, and the same powerfully subversive force - capitalism - that has given us the wherewithal to indulge." Do not fear, the book is not a socialist shout-out - Akst is just providing accurate context: "That we have the chance to get ourselves into so much trouble - with food, drink, money, and one another - is actually a testament to human progress, for what we're talking about here is nothing less than the democratization of temptation."

And we are doing a poor job in controlling ourselves. We are smoking, eating, boozing, and screwing with wild abandon. These activities now account for "more than a million fatalities annually in this country, or close to half of all U.S. deaths." We have a few other problems like conspicuous consumption, living beyond means, all the while filling landfills with discarded crap. Akst's metaphor of a giant buffet stocked with calories, credit, sex, intoxicants is apt and so is our inability to diet and choose wisely.
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