Reviewing Tim Kreider’s “We Learn Nothing”

We Learn Nothing paperback cover, published by Simon & Schuster (2013)

Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and essayist who was a regular contributor to the New York Times. I’ve previously referenced his article “I Am a Meme Now”, which I absolutely adored. It was that essay that prompted me to buy this collection. It features a number of his excellent sketches, too.

Overall, some essays were incredibly powerful, and I’ll 100% read them again and again. Whilst others were middling, and a few even left a rather bad taste in my mouth. Yet I must have enjoyed this book a great deal to write a review this long!

To review the book, I thought I’d highlight six (out of 15) essays that perfectly encapsulate my thoughts about the book as a whole.

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Two of the most thought-provoking essays

Kreider is at his best when weaving personal anecdotes and connecting them with insights on human behaviour. This is best displayed in his poignant essay “The Referendum.” In it, he talks about the unrepeatability of life and what profound effect this has on our judgements.

For example, he notes how his friends who are parents often envy him, but he never envies them. He concludes it’s because parents know exactly what they’ve missed out on and will always miss out, whereas Kreider—who has no children—cannot know what he’s missing.

The crux of what he describes as the Referendum is this:

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

My peers and I are far from midlife, but this is a phenomenon I’ve seen in people similar to my age. Most ashamedly, there have even been times when I’ve recognised it within myself in the past. Perhaps in the age of social media it’s easier to judge and envy others. We have constant access to people and have their daily lives fed to us through an algorithm. It’s something I’ve become conscious of in recent years and actively try to work against.

Another effective aspect of Kreider’s writing, which I also think encourages self-reflection, is that he approaches all his essays with a level of self-awareness and vulnerability. Although I think this leads to some very ill-conceived thoughts (more on that later), he never claims moral purity. The book isn’t remotely anything like a self-help book, but it could be better than a lot of self-help out there. This is due to Kreider’s ability to illustrate the messiness of what it means to be human with such honest, heartfelt, and humorous prose.

Take another of his essays, “Lazy: A Manifesto.” Initially published in the New York Times as “The Busy Trap”, Kreider asks:

I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cell phones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m somewhat guilty of this. Whereas Kreider describes himself as the “laziest ambitious person” he knows, and when this pressure to be busy got to him, he found he hated the busyness. He’s very honest about how he’d rather spend his best days: “given over entirely to uninterrupted debauchery”.

Sketch from the illustration titled “My Worst Enemy – Past Tim”

However, it also raises questions of privilege. One person’s self-imposed or perceived busyness is very different from another person’s busyness that is outside of their control. Two people could do the same job and could be equally busy at work, but one person’s personal life outside of work could add a whole extra layer of busyness the other doesn’t know about. How does that play into one’s perception of busyness?

Some of us are also super busy but on the surface appear to be doing less work than our counterparts because our brains impose limits on us outside of our control.

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center [sic] of our lives. I know that after I’ve spent a whole day working or running errands or answering emails or watching movies, keeping my brain busy and distracted, as soon as I lie down to sleep all the niggling quotidian worries and Big Picture questions I’ve successfully kept at bay come crowding into my brain like monsters swarming out of the closet the instant you turn off the nightlight … One of my correspondents suggests that what we’re all so afraid of is being left alone with ourselves.

I wouldn’t say that Kreider fails to recognise the question of privilege — plus, complaining an essay doesn’t cover all bases would be a bad faith criticism. From the outset, he states that those doing really important work don’t tend to tell people they’re busy because it’s obvious. Instead, they tell people how exhausted they are — a true sign of someone’s busyness.

Rather I think this is an important question for the reader to ponder. How much is your busyness just a distraction from the thoughts you’d have to face if you were idle? Has busyness become a coping mechanism? Or has busyness become some badge of honour? How much of your busyness really needs to be done?

As Kreider notes, “It was the Puritans who perverted work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” Busyness has become a symbol of pride. Hell, whenever I’m not busy and talking to someone who claims to be, I start sweating and thinking I’m wasting my life. But maybe what we need is a radical shift in mindset where we celebrate idleness more than we lionise busyness.

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Two of the most problematic essays:

I do not read the New York Times. Aside from the fact I’m British and live in England, I know a little about the paper’s reputation and the propaganda it has churned out over the years. So I’d never choose to read it if I could help it. As such, I must admit to having a bias about what I expect a frequent contributor’s politics to be. One particular essay only reaffirmed this bias.

The essay titled “When They’re Not Assholes” centres around the time Kreider went along to a Tea Party rally undercover to write about the people there. Whilst there, he encountered one of his former students. I don’t have the space to go into great details, and I can accept there were some interesting points in the essay. However, other points annoyed the shit out of me.

For starters, he lumps progressives, liberals and leftists together, using them interchangeably like we’re all one big team but refuse to accept it. In a footnote, he states, “as far as I can tell leftists are liberals who get mad if you call them liberals because liberals are all bourgeois patsies of The Man.” I won’t pretend to possess sufficient political literacy to explain all the different leftist ideologies, separating the anarchists from the democratic socialists, or eloquently and accurately communicating the key differences between Trotskyists and Marxist-Leninists. However, knowing there are different leftist ideologies, which are all separate from liberalism, demonstrates that Kreider might not fully understand what he’s saying here.

Sketch included in the “When They’re Not Assholes” essay

I must note, however, that the book did come out in 2013 and his politics now may be very different. I can’t profess to be a Kreider expert beyond what I’ve read so far, and I’m perfectly capable of accepting that people’s political views can be complicated, contradictory and change over time. But in the context of the book, lumping leftists and liberals together makes me question the analysis.

Another related point from the essay I found very telling was this:

When I listened to Tony Blair’s defense of the invasion of Iraq, I was abashed to realize that if we’d had a president who’d been half as eloquent, and had flattered my intelligence instead of appealing to fear, I might well have been persuaded to support the war. It turns out I respond to the Pavlovian stimulus of propaganda as reliably as the next rube—Bush was just using the wrong brand name on me.

Few, if any, are immune to propaganda. I’ve been led astray by propaganda before, and I wouldn’t presume it’ll never happen again. But this comment is connected to a wider point made in the essay about the similarities between liberals and conservatives. And in some ways, Kreider is right, but I’m not sure in the way he intended.

Political parties are treated like sports teams and things like facts and reason often have little to do with many people’s political alignments. But this is why lumping leftists in with liberals proves problematic. Leftists and liberals have strong ideological differences. Common ground can certainly be found, but in 2021 it couldn’t be clearer that most leftists and liberals are not on the same team. If we were, why would the UK’s “left-wing” party, Labour, spend as much time demonising left-wingers as the Conservative Party? The US isn’t that much of an improvement, either, if you were to ask any principled leftist.

However, most egregious is the essay “Chutes and Candyland”. Whilst undoubtedly one of the most interesting essay titles, it was the one I found hardest to stomach. It’s about his friend Jenny Boylan and her transition.

Now is probably the time to mention Kreider’s liberal use of the f and r slurs throughout the book. Although the context is never bigoted or directed at marginalised people, in the eight years since the book was published, a major cultural shift has occurred where we would not expect to see these words written by someone like Kreider today. The same can be said for how Kreider describes his friend’s transition.

As a cis writer myself, I’m not best positioned to make justifications — or perhaps even condemnations — of the language Kreider uses. But from what I’ve learnt and read by trans people, if this piece were published today, then the deadnaming and misgendering would be (rightly) inexcusable.

However, Jenny Boylan, the friend in question, said this about the book on her website:

I left Tim’s role largely unexplored in She’s Not There, mostly because Russo and Deedie had been the two supporting characters through the book to that point. But after they left, it was Tim Kreider who sat by my bed for the next week and read me stories, got me on my feet. He writes about all of this in a chapter in the new book called “Chutes and Candyland.” It may remind some readers of Russo’s afterword to She’s Not There— in that a male friend of mine has to reconsider the meaning of friendship in the wake of gender shift. But Tim’s viewpoint of the world is both more scholarly and more skeptical than Ricks.  And his account of the process he had to go through reflects that sensibility, both the intellectual grappling he had to go through as well as the way in which he felt, at times, at a loss.

In a relatively short amount of time, the language has aged poorly. But the intentions of the essay are undoubtedly heartfelt. Plus, Jenny clearly still thought highly of Kreider’s work in 2018, tweeting a screenshot from Kreider’s op-ed in the NYT called “Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us”:

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” mean purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground. I for one can’t wait till we’re gone. I just wish I could live to see the world without us.

It’s a message that demonstrates growth from 2013. It’s also a message I can get behind.

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Two of the most hard-hitting essays:

These two essays hit me the hardest, the latter reducing me to tears. And I left these to last because I think they exemplify the very best of Kreider’s writing.

Often you don’t know whether you’re the hero of a romantic comedy or the villain on a Lifetime special until the restraining order arrives.

Sketch from the illustration titled “How To Win Her Back”

The quote is taken from the book’s second essay, “The Creature Walks Among Us”. It’s about heartbreak, but it’s also about falling in love with people who we might not even like. And for me, it’s an exploration of all the wildly stupid and well-intentioned but ill-conceived things love makes us do.

I think it hits hard for me because reading it was in many ways like looking into a mirror. Kreider and I don’t have remotely similar experiences of love, but the emotions involved felt reminiscent of my own heartbreaks. I especially connected with his suggestion that the reason artists might be susceptible to love affairs is that “being in love is one of the only times life is anything like art”.

Being in love can bring out the best in me as well as the worst. I’ve begun to think I’m at my healthiest, mentally speaking, during the period between realising I’m falling for someone and the moment of rejection. It’s that sweet spot that fills the days with hope and excitement. It’s a feeling I think the essay captures perfectly.

Its most profound moment, however, is the essay’s conclusion. Sometimes you read a passage from a book that is perfect for where you are in your life right now. This was one of those passages (emphasis mine):

Right now I’m neither in love nor heartbroken. I almost hesitate to say this: it still feels provisional, like remission … It’s mostly a relief to be free of it, like not waking up hung over. At those moments when I’ve felt myself starting to relapse—waiting for someone to call who wasn’t going to, that familiar helplessness clutching my gut—I’ve recoiled like a recovering alcoholic waking from a dream of being blacked-out drunk, relieved and thankful that he’s still sober … But I also know that all around me the air is full of songs too beautiful for me to hear. Sometimes I’ll see a pair of electric-blue damselflies coupled in flight, and I remember how it felt to be weightless.

Yearning for that weightlessness was enough to get me emotional. But it was “The Czar’s Daughter” that utterly destroyed me. Even revisiting select passages to lift quotes were enough to move me to tears.

Loneliness is a subject that hits close to home for me, and Kreider wrote a tender portrayal of loneliness that is both heart-breaking and heart-warming. But this isn’t a story of his own loneliness, rather it’s a tale about one of his very good friends.

The man in question could be called a liar, telling tales about his own life that weren’t true. For example, he talked of a daughter he didn’t have. But he wasn’t a liar, not really. He just told his friends stories. And his friends liked him well enough to not call him out on them. He was a man who was always £20 too short, but never did they begrudge lending him money. He was the butt of the group’s jokes, but he appeared perfectly happy to laugh along.

But so much of who he was only came to light after he passed away. That’s when his secrets were revealed.

The worst part, for me, is imagining how alone he was. This is the most poisonous thing that secrets do to us—they isolate us from everyone around us and make us feel even lonelier than we already are … When we die, all our secrets are loosed, like demons departing a body. Whatever subjective self we protected or kept hidden all our lives is gone; all that’s left of us is stories.

I could not even write this part of the review without getting tearful. And it’s hard to explain why it’s so moving without delving into deeply personal stories of my own, which would make this excessively long review even longer.

But the essay’s most profound effect on me comes from the following quote:

[One] of the things we rely on our friends for: [is] to think better of us than we think of ourselves. It makes us feel better, but it also makes us be better; we try to be the person they believe we are.

Reading this essay reminded me how grateful I am for the friends I have. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to think highly of myself. But good fortune would have it that I’ve always had someone to think highly of me when I couldn’t.

So I should thank Tim Kreider for this essay. Thank him for reminding me how lucky I am to keep such great company. Thank him for reminding me that every day I am trying to be the person my friends already believe me to be.

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So, in conclusion, the book can at times be disappointingly frustrating with its problematic parts and humour that elicits an eye roll. But the essays are so varied that it’s worth reading for the deeply insightful and profoundly moving passages, which are complemented by witty observations that at least deserve a smirk.