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I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) Hardcover – July 9, 2013

3.9 out of 5 stars 206 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, July 2013: Name one writer who could drop Eazy-E, Hitler, and Linda Tripp into the same conversation and spark neither rage nor derision. I count Chuck Klosterman and maybe no one else. But that's what his new collection does: I Wear the Black Hat examines "villains" of all stripes and scale, as well as our varied (and often counterintuitive) reactions to them. For example: If Batman were real, would he be any less reviled than Bernhard Goetz, the 1980s NYC subway vigilante? (Probably not--he'd be a scary freak.) Why would D.B. Cooper, a hijacker who parachuted into the night sky over Washington state with 200 thousand dollars in stolen money, become a legend and a folk hero? (Because he seemed smooth and he wore a suit.) Is Don Henley evil? (That’s a personal decision.) The subject is serious--at first blush there’s nothing funny about murderers, tyrants, and Al Davis--but Klosterman's pop culture sensibilities and skewed vistas offer interesting angles into what makes some bad guys bad and other bad guys good, while his deceivingly lightweight style keeps things brisk and entertaining. Instead of getting mad at what might seem glib or impertinent, you admire the audacity of the observation and wish that you’d thought of this yourself (or at least that you had written it down). The question of who could do this might be irrelevant; how many would even try? --Jon Foro

Guest Review of I Wear the Black Hat

By Rob Sheffield

Nobody investigates American culture with the ferocity of Chuck Klosterman. It’s impossible to imagine any writer who even could have invented Klosterman as a fictional character, because no other writer can come close to matching his ear for the way Americans love to argue. I Wear the Black Hat is his study of villains, ripping into moral questions with the same fervor he brings to any other topic. Who else loves an argument this passionately? And what could be more American than loving an argument? Reading I Wear The Black Hat is like wandering into a saloon, taking the barstool next to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and getting sucked into a marathon philosophical debate over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s cameo in Airplane!

Black Hat is his most wide-ranging, provocative, unhinged and hilariously contentious book yet. In “The Ethicist,” the column he writes for the New York Times, Klosterman addresses his readers’ everyday moral dilemmas, but here he branches into broader questions of good and evil. What is a villain? What makes a villain different from a bad guy, a crook, an antihero? Why does the Dude hate the Eagles? Why do kids relate to Luke Skywalker while their parents prefer Darth Vader?

It’s a rogue’s gallery of villains, ingeniously paced to keep you guessing who’s coming up next. Some of these villains are historical figures, like Machiavelli or Stalin. Others are modern legends, like the 1970s skyjacker D.B. Cooper. Some are totally fictional, like the mustache-twirling cartoon Snidely Whiplash. And one is Hitler, just because people kept disagreeing about whether he should include a Hitler chapter. He digs into the tangled ethical legacies of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Jimmy Page and Aleister Crowley, Batman and Bernhard Goetz, N.W.A. and the Oakland Raiders. He also notes how President Obama has called Omar his favorite character on The Wire, “thus making Obama the first sitting president to express admiration for a fictional homosexual who killed dozens of people with a shotgun.”

As always, Klosterman mixes cerebral quibbles with his own crackpot junk-culture erudition, like some kind of demon spawn sired by Schopenhauer and C. C. DeVille. He always finds a way to cast some new light on artifacts that are hidden in plain sight. For instance, most people have heard of The Starr Report, and have a vague sense of its historical impact. But who has actually read it lately? Who remembers details like the way Monica Lewinsky gave Bill Clinton a souvenir mug from Santa Monica? Or O.J. Simpson’s 2007 book If I Did It, his hypothetical memoir of how he would have murdered his victims? “The existence of this book is deeply, vastly, hysterically underrated,” Klosterman notes. “I want to write something along the lines of ‘If I Did It is as bizarre as ---,’ but no cultural minutia fits in that space. Roman Polanski would have to make a biopic about Charles Manson’s music career.”

All over Black Hat, Klosterman brings a little sympathy for the devil, which is essential for a book this ambitious. And he holds it all together with his voracious intellectual curiosity, the emotional intensity of his prose, the compassion of his bad Catholic conscience. As he ruefully admits, in his discussion of Chevy Chase, “I see all of Chevy’s worst qualities in myself. But none of his good ones.”

If he ever came off as moralistic, or a talk-radio blowhard, it would sink the whole project. Yet Klosterman always seems to approach these questions out of genuine curiosity--the man would rather start an argument than settle one, much less win one. He savors the debate for its own sake. That’s what makes his voice so humane, so unmistakable. It’s also what ultimately makes Black Hat his most compelling work. Reading any random page of Black Hat--as with anything Klosterman writes, except more so--you want to argue back at every line, right down to the commas.

From Booklist

With characteristically infuriating insight and wit, Klosterman (The Visible Man, 2011) takes on our fascination—and often, indeed, our identification—with villainy. He covers a lot of territory: the antiheroes he discusses include airplane hijacker D. B. Cooper, subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, rappers NWA, the Oakland Raiders football team, Bill Clinton, and O. J. Simpson. Very much a product of his generation and as plugged into the popular culture as Mencken was antagonistic to it, Klosterman is in that same direct line of cultural critics as Bierce, Mencken, and more recently, P. J. O’Rourke, and his posture is similarly arch and iconoclastic, if more analytical. He is not for everybody (icons clearly have their supporters), and his targets often seem small, which may say as much about our culture as it does about Klosterman. But this collection of related essays, though uneven—for example, his take on Muhammad Ali is particularly strong, but on Chevy Chase, Howard Cosell, or the Eagles, it is inconsequential—will amuse and/or outrage but, either way, it should enlarge his audience. --Mark Levine
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (July 9, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439184496
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439184493
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (206 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #124,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Reading Klosterman's book I found myself thinking about the old adage about opinions, that everyone has one and well you know the rest.

As a new Klosterman reader perhaps I came to the book expecting the wrong thing. I expected a cogent thoughtful treatise on what causes us to identify some people or characters as villanous while giving others the pass. And while Klosterman starts off his first chapter in this direction with a discussion of why Machiavelli is widely reviled, he quickly dissembles into some serious navel gazing.

Klosterman opens his second chapter with an extended discussion of bands he has disliked. I'll admit that I didn't care much about Klosterman's taste in music, however the discussion might have been justified had it fed some larger reasoned conclusion. However, even after re-reading his discussion twice I could not make out exactly what his larger point was. While he wrote in exacting detail about his personal taste he definitely phoned it in when it came to drawing conclusions.

From there Klosterman launched into a discussion of why some mysoginist music from decades passed has come to be thought of as mostly harmless while a similarly sexist comedian is still reviled. Again Klosterman doesn't draw any strongly reasoned conclusions, and it's even the conclusions that he does draw seem suspect given that he offers up no support other than his own opinions and no additional examples beyond the two he has discussed.

And to be honest even though Klosterman was clearly working to paint his sexist comedian as a sympatheitc victim of political correctness, it was difficult to find much to sympathize about a man who made millions calling women dirty names on stage.
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I would have to assume that most people enjoy reading Klosterman because: (1) he is a good writer, (2) he is interesting, (3) he is relatable, and (4) he writes on topics that appeal to a certain generation (born 1970 -1990). Having read Cocoa Puffs, Dinosaur, Killing Yourself, IV, etc., I will say that this book is consistent with the reasons why we enjoy Klosterman. In fact, this was probably the best one yet (my personal preference is to read a book with a central theme about something interesting such as "good vs. evil" rather than occasional essays on music bands I don't necessarily relate to -- though there is some of that too).

I find that the reviews that criticize Klosterman's ideas or express disagreement with his conclusions are probably missing the point - the questions he raises are just as important as his assertions. You don't have to agree. The Amazon summary is exactly correct: "Klosterman continues to be the only writer doing whatever it is he's doing." Fans of his other books will enjoy this.
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I have often wondered if Chuck Klosterman is the hip, every man version of David Foster Wallace: erudite in the material of pop culture, serious in his reflections upon it, and enjoyable to read. Here Klosterman starts with a theory of pop culture villainy, and develops it through several linked essays. Yet his path rambles around in such a way that the theory seems increasingly like a college dorm conversations under the influence of some mind altering substance. Klosterman begins with a reflection on Niccolo Machiavelli and his consignment to villainy in poplar culture but then moves to the difference between George W Bush and Dick Cheney in villainy, then jumps to Penn State football villainy and then moves into reflections on pop culture which seem increasing a mixture of 90s sports references, a some incoherent reflection on Batman, and navel-gazing.

Instead of the normal Everyman DFW, I feel we get Malcolm Galdwell in a band t-shirt. Klosterman is just not maintaining the task set itself and his normally helpful penchant for pop culture examples just don't do the lifting they normally do. Klosterman problem is that his thesis seems to be pop psychology and his defense of it is largely built around sports. There are still individual lines that are hilariously funny, and Klosterman has not lost his ability to write crystal clear ironic prose, but the center cannot hold here because the approach and the subject matter just don't seem to mess. I would give suggest reading it as a collection of essays and enjoying the line by line, but if one holds it to its own ambition, most of Klosterman's earlier books of essays are much more successful on their own terms.
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I've read some of Chuck Klosterman's writing in the news paper, but this is the first book I've read. I think I found the book via an Amazon recommendation (I like to review my recommendations during dull telephone calls), and I happened to purchase I Wear the Black Hat. Today, I'm home with a bad cold, and normally, I'd read some fun, escapist mystery story. But - I happened on I Wear the Black Hat on my Kindle, and barely moved for the 3 - 4 hours it took me to read the book.

So--what is this book? It's a series of chapters about various villains ranging from The Eagles to O.J. Simpson to Hitler. Each mini expose is wrapped in a small shroud of pop culture, putting the villain into context for us--or not.

I'm not sure why I liked it so much, think it was partly that the book is smart, partly that it is irreverent, maybe because there are some good musical references, and heck, it is probably talking down to me but I don't know. Whatever it is, the book was an enjoyable few hours during which my cold symptoms ceased to annoy me.
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