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I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) Paperback – July 1, 2014
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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.
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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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He starts with a premise that villains are people that know better and don't care. A few chapters later, his examples go off that course. He comes back around to it, but had to remind me what his thesis was. There are several times when I wonder what is his thesis and it gets annoying.
This is a good book to read when you're waiting for the train or listening to TV without watching. It's enjoyable and easy to follow. It's not a doctoral study, but that's why I enjoyed it.
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.
He hits multiple topics: Rock, Politics, Celebrities, Sports and Historical figures with equal aplomb.
Who's good and who's bad?
That's the problem, unfortunately people are complex and differentiating between evil and good is complex.
His autobiographical journey's are more fascinating, the dude lived on McDonald's chicken nuggets to prove a point.
The writing is first rate, the subject matter is interesting, in particular the take on OJ and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Of less interest is why he hated certain bands at certain times, and what that has to do with anything now left me in the dark.
I liked the last book of his I read better, "Eating The Dinosaur."