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on July 22, 2012
I bought this book after reading an essay("The Busy Trap")by this author in the New York Times online. I had never heard of Tim Kreider before, but this essay was so topical, so insightful, so on-target that I simply had to see what else he had to say.

I was a little hesitant because it became clear after a bit of research that Kreider's politics and mine were pretty far out of sync. (Not that I mind competing viewpoints, I just don't like the whole bashing thing.) I need not have worried. Unlike much of Kreider's work of the George W. Bush era, which consistently savaged all things Republican, We Learn Nothing is not overtly political. Each essay is unique, highly original, wistful, soul-baring, poignant, and achingly human. Although a naturally passionate lefty partisan, Kreider is, to his immense credit, rigorously intellectually honest and reflexively fair throughout this latest collection. He is unsparingly critical of himself and those with whom he aligns, and gracious and empathetic to his philosophical opposites. It feels a little like an act of atonement, as though Kreider is saying: Sorry I got a little carried away there. See, I'm much better now.

I cannot recall ever having read an author so preternaturally incisive, so aware, so adept at performing what amounts to a full monty of the soul without seeming self-indulgent. Kreider is relentlessly introspective and profoundly self-aware. Yet this is no act of mere navel-gazing. Above all, We Learn Nothing is the work of a sensitive, piercing intelligence trying to make sense of the world by first making sense of itself. This book should be required reading for anyone trying to come to terms with this messy, confusing, brutal, beautiful, tragic, hilarious, stupid, fragile thing we call life. Scratch that: This book should be required reading, period.

After reading this book I thought, I would love to spend an afternoon with this guy over beers, discussing anything and everything.
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VINE VOICEon July 11, 2012
It's easy to compare a book like this to the works of a host of other contemporary essayists (Sedaris, et al), but after the second or third essay I realized Kreider's voice is unique: he tells stories, often with the barest of details, in a way that doesn't expose himself too much and/or doesn't exploit someone else in the process. Which is to say, he has written a book that is heart-breaking, charming, edge-of-your-seat suspenseful (hoping that he will offer up all the gory details) and -- even though I hate this word when used to describe writing -- generous. Kreider is a masterful storyteller, and I can't recall the last time I enjoyed a book of essays this much.

The stories themselves cover a lot of terrain: dysfunctional family members, transgendered friends, near death experiences, relationships; but always from the perspective of someone who's madly in love with his friends and family, warts and all. Kreider exposes the ugly/beautiful truth of what it means to be human in the most honest, thoughtful, endearing and entertaining way.

Highly, highly recommended.
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on June 23, 2012
Tim's brilliant writing style, scathing satire and sharp wit will alleviate your pain of "being a person in the world". It's tremendously comforting to discover that you are not alone in your secret despair.
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on July 2, 2012
We Learn Nothing is funny and profound. The essays range from Kreider's stabbing ("Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds."), to romantic relationships, friendship, political outrage ("I was a political cartoonist and essayist for the duration of the Bush presidency, so I was professionally furious every week for eight years."), family, illness, his friend Jenny Boylan's gender reassignment journey ("Jenny would argue that she'd never been a man; she'd just been impersonating one. I would say, You and me both."). The essays manage to be both hilarious and serious, quick yet insightful. I really enjoy essay collections, but the funny ones especially tend to be fast reads that I soon forget. This one I liked so much that I decided not to mark it up. So I put stickies in the spots that I wanted to go back to and really think about. Trust me, there are a LOT of stickies in this book.

In his writing, Kreider comes off as intense, intelligent, and witty with a slightly unbalanced edge that makes for some brutally honest - almost cringe-inducing -- reading moments. Kreider is an interesting guy with an interesting life. Not many of us can write essays about a mentally ill uncle incarcerated for attempted murder by arson ("His visits were like a whiff of cigarette smoke in church."), getting stabbed, a transitioning transgender friend, discovering in middle age that we've been adopted, or a best friend who becomes obsessed with peak-oil. But what makes We Learn Nothing a really worthwhile read, beyond the fun and inherent interest, is the way Kreider widens the scope. I'll never -- sorry to say -- have a friend quite like Skelly, the subject of the wonderful "The Czar's Daughter", who, despite "his incidental falsehoods" was "a fundamentally genuine person." But I can certainly relate to Kreider's Skelly-inspired meditation on lying and identity:

"What someone's lies reveal about them (aspirations to being an accomplished writer, fantasies of an exotic history and a cosmopolitan family) are always sadder than the fact of the lies themselves. These inventions illuminate the negative spaces of someone's self-image, their vanity and insecurities and most childish wishes, as we can infer from warped starlight the presence of a far vaster mass of dark matter."

Another essay I loved was "How They Tried to F*** Me Over (But I Showed Them)", about political allegiances, hypocrisy, and rage. As someone who spends a lot of time online, I felt more than a twinge of uncomfortable recognition when reading passages like this one:

"Obviously, some part of us loves feeling 1) right and 2) wronged. But outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good, but, over time, devour us from the inside out. Except it's even more insidious than most vices because we don't even consciously acknowledge that it's a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy reaction to negative stimuli, like pain or nausea, rather than admit it's a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again..."

The subtitle of We Learn Nothing includes the word "Cartoons" and you may have noticed I've said almost nothing about the drawings here. I confess they left me unmoved. In describing his cartoons, Krieder has said they reveal "a certain preoccupation with the sordid and the unwise-with drunkenness, ill-advised sex, poor work habits-and what Frederic Raphael, in speaking of Stanley Kubrick, described as 'an amused pessimism at the notion that people are capable of change.'" My feeling was that the cartoons lived up (or down, depending on your view) to this sensibility, but I happened to prefer the more optimistic sensibility of the text.

This is a terrific book. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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on June 26, 2012
We Learn Nothing is insightful and loaded with unique observations about love, life, friendship, family, politics, and career. From noticing that his near-death experience only had a finite shelf life as a life-changing experience, to his comparison of a bad toupee to how we cover our own more personal insecurities (the soul toupee), Kreider speaks with humor and a disarming self-deprecation. I've read some good books this year, and this one ranks at or near the top of the list.
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on October 17, 2012
"I'm more productive now, and more successful; for the first time in my life I'm supporting myself by doing what I've always wanted to do. But I laugh less than I used to. Drinking was, among other things, an excellent excuse to devote eight or ten consecutive hours to sitting idly around having hilarious conversations with friends, than which I'm still not convinced there is any better possible use of our time on earth."

"With some people, it's all a foregone conclusion once you get close enough to inhale the scent of their hair."

"It's like the revelation I had the first time I ever flew in an airplane as a kid: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold on to when you descend once again beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather."

"After my unsuccessful murder I wasn't unhappy for an entire year."
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on December 4, 2012
Whereas the author and I are polar opposites in political philosophy and I would bore him and he would infuriate me in person, I found he touched on issues that we could agree upon. I found his brutal honesty refreshing and maybe it takes a bohemian to say stuff like that. But at least for me, he said things that I wish I could say and said in an unusually poignant manner.I could relate to his maturing process too.
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on October 21, 2012
Tim Kreider emerges in "We Learn Nothing" as an artful essayist and a careful observer of human nature. Through life experiences ranging from a near death experience to dealing with the family pain of an uncle with mental illness, Tim brings deep and honest introspection to bear on complex issues. (DISCLAIMER: Having grown up with Tim through high school and college, it could be argued I am not the most objective of literary critics here. That being said, having some personal insight into certain chapters--the lost friendship of Felix, for instance, or the death of his father--has made this book even more poignant for me.) What I learned from this book, most of all, was that Kreider HAD, through honest thinking and well-crafted prose, learned quite about himself and others. I think I learned a thing or two about myself, as well. An easy "Five Stars!"
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on July 23, 2012
What a great book! I found myself following my husband around the house just to read certain lines and paragraphs to him. This is the kind of book that, when you've finished it, you feel like you've lost contact with a friend. Kreider's observations are laugh out loud funny, interesting, and honest. I hope he comes out with another book soon! The addition of a related cartoon to go with each essay and his self-deprecating humor really add to the experience as well.
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on December 25, 2012
"We Learn Nothing" is a self-effacing romp through Tim Kredier's insights, which are heady and fascinating, and his foibles, which are hysterical and heartbreaking. He is a real craftsman with the language, which turns his vignettes into frostingy treats with solid cake beneath. I had a hard time not irritating my wife with constant read-alouds, which she soon came to enjoy despite her best efforts to ignore the both of us.

I was immediately drawn to Kreider from his columns in the NY Times. If you don't know them, they're lovely philippics about worlds and people past, bygone refuges of quiet, laughter, and poignancy. If there's such a thing as a cynical romantic, Kreider's your man. He's a bit like what the Big Lebowski would sound like writing for a metropolitan newspaper, curse words and all. If you like his columns, you'll go crazy for his book. The cartoons are worth the cost alone-- some of them really are laugh-out-loud funny, and he doesn't pull any punches.

What's best about this seminal guide for smart good-for-nothings is that he's not really talking about himself, he's talking about us. "We've all worn the diaper," he points out, when examining the case of the NASA woman who wore a diaper and drove cross-country to make good on a love gone sour.

I can't recommend this book enough. I've already gifted it twice, and it's been a real hit. Be careful, though...reading Kreider is like looking at him in a police lineup, except that you're belatedly aware that the glass isn't one-way--he's looking back at you as well, with an all-too-knowing wink.
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