New York Times essayist and author of We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider trains his virtuoso writing and singular power of observation on his (often befuddling) relationships with women.
Psychologists have told him he’s a psychologist. Philosophers have told him he’s a philosopher. Religious groups have invited him to speak. He had a cult following as a cartoonist. But, above all else, Tim Kreider is an essayist—one whose deft prose, uncanny observations, dark humor, and emotional vulnerability have earned him deserved comparisons to David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and the late David Foster Wallace (who was himself a fan of Kreider’s humor).
In his new collection, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, he focuses his unique perception and wit on his relationships with women—romantic, platonic, and the murky in-between. He talks about his difficulty finding lasting love, and seeks to understand his commitment issues by tracking down the John Hopkins psychologist who tested him for a groundbreaking study on attachment when he was a toddler. He talks about his valued female friendships, one of which landed him on a circus train bound for Mexico. He talks about his time teaching young women at an upstate New York college, and the profound lessons they wound up teaching him. And in a hugely popular essay that originally appeared in The New York Times, he talks about his nineteen-year-old cat, wondering if it’s the most enduring relationship he’ll ever have.
Each of these pieces is hilarious and profound, and collectively they further cement Kreider’s place among the best essayists working today.
I Wrote This Book Because I Love You Oof I recently received an email that was about me, but wasn’t for me; I’d been cc’d by accident. This is one of the hazards of email, reason 697 why the Internet is Bad—the apocalyptic consequence of hitting REPLY ALL instead of REPLY.
I had rented a herd of goats for reasons that aren’t relevant here, and had sent out a mass email with attached photographs of my goats to illustrate that (a) I had goats and (b) having goats was good. There turns out to be something primally satisfying about possessing livestock: a man wants to boast of his herd. Most respondents expressed appropriate admiration and envy of my goats, but the email in question, from my agent, was intended as a forward to some of her coworkers, sighing over the frivolous expenditures on which I was frittering away my advance. The word Oof was used.
I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical anarchic mind could devise would not be on the government, the military, or the financial sector, but simply to simultaneously make every email and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe: the fabric of society would instantly disintegrate, every marriage, friendship, and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions, and benign lies, would self-destruct in a universal holocaust of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces, bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds and litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets, and lingering ill will.
This particular email was, in itself, no big deal. Tone is notoriously easy to misinterpret online, and you could’ve read my friend’s message as affectionate headshaking rather than a contemptuous eye roll. It’s frankly hard to parse the word oof. And to be fair, I am terrible with money, unable to distinguish between any amounts other than $8.00 and $0.00: I always seem to have the former until suddenly and without warning it turns into the latter. But I like to think of this as an endearing foible, or at least no one else’s business, rather than imagine that it might be annoying—or, worse, boring—for my friends to have to listen to me bitch about the moribund state of the publishing industry and the digitization of literature while also watching me blow my advance on linen suits and livestock.
What was surprisingly wounding wasn’t that the email was insulting but simply that it was unsympathetic. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they will—making allowances, assuming good intentions, always on your side. There’s something existentially scary about finding out how little room you occupy, and how little allegiance you command, in other people’s hearts.
This experience is not a novelty of the Information Age; it’s always been available to us through the analog technology of eavesdropping. Those moments when you overhear others describing you without censoring themselves for your benefit are like catching a glimpse of yourself in a mirror without having first combed your hair and correctly arranged your face, or seeing a candid photo of yourself online, not smiling or posing but just looking the way you apparently always do, oblivious and mush-faced with your mouth open. I’ve written essays about friends that I felt were generous and empathetic but that they experienced as devastating. I’ve also been written about, in ways I had no factual quarrel with but that nonetheless made me wince to read. It is simply not pleasant to be objectively observed. It’s proof that you are visible, that you are seen, in all your naked silliness and stupidity.
Needless to say, this makes us embarrassed and angry and damn the people who’ve thus betrayed us as vicious two-faced hypocrites. Which in fact everyone is. Gossiping and making fun of each other are among the most ancient and enjoyable of human amusements. And we should really know better than to confuse this with true cruelty. Of course we make fun of the people we love: they are ridiculous. Anyone worth knowing is inevitably also going to be complicated, difficult, and exasperating—making the same obvious mistakes over and over, squandering their money, dating imbeciles, endlessly relapsing into dumb addictions and self-defeating habits, blind to their own hilarious flaws and blatant contradictions and fiercely devoted to whatever keeps them miserable. (And those people about whom there is nothing ridiculous are the most ridiculous of all.) It is necessary to make fun of them in order to take them as seriously as we do. Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, that you’ve got his number, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring each other that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.
Although sometimes—let’s admit it—we’re just being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had. And not just because of the hurt she’d inflicted, but because of what it forced her to see about herself: that she made fun of people all the time—people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy—just to make herself seem funny or cool or to ingratiate herself with other girls.
A friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of twelve-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this at first sounds suspiciously like nonsense: obviously what other people think of you is your business; it’s your main job in life to try to micromanage everyone’s perceptions of you and do tireless PR and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you. The ones who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected—above all, taken seriously! Those who mocked you will rue the day!
The problem is that this is insane—the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure total, unquestioning loyalty. Eventually a mob is going to topple your statues. The operative fallacy here is that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, whereas it really means pretty much the opposite. (In the story “Rebecca,” about a woman with green skin, Donald Barthelme writes: “Do I want to be loved in spite of? Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”) We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves—the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.
I finally had a talk with my agent about the Oof faux pas, in which, as so rarely happens, we actually got down to the real tension underlying our tiff. As usual, it had less to do with me than I’d imagined. It is, after all, my agent’s job to make money for me, but because I am as oblivious and self-absorbed as most people, the possibility that she might’ve interpreted my recreational complaining as a reproach had never occurred to me. That accidental glimpse of unguarded feeling had clarified and deepened our friendship. In the end, all parties apologized, reiterated their mutual affection and respect, and formally acknowledged the environmental and economic benefits of goats over mowing. It may be that it’s less exchanged favors or compliments than hurt feelings and fights that turns us into intimates. Months later I sent her a photo of myself at the Museum of Modern Art, glowering next to Ed Ruscha’s painting of the word OOF.
A friend of mine once had a dream about a strange and terrible device: a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said first before you could get to the best things said about you, at the very bottom. This wasn’t even my dream, and my friend told me about it over a quarter century ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. There is no way I would make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but the dream-metaphor is clear enough: if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.
Tim Kreider has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Week, The Men’s Journal, and Nerve.com. His popular comic strip, The Pain—When Will It End?, ran in alternative weeklies for twelve years and has been collected in three books by Fantagraphics. He is the author of two collections of essays, We Learn Nothing and I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. He divides his time between New York City and an undisclosed location on the Chesapeake Bay.
"Tim Kreider's voice is never anything less than honest, smart, and hilarious; in I Wrote This Book Because I Love You he is even more mordant and empathetic than ever before. What a sad and beautiful book."
– Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies
"Tim Kreider's wonderfully frank, consistently funny essays reminded me at a time of spectacular doubt that there might still be a few men in America who are both weird and wise, equally friendly to cats and ex-girlfriends, and refreshingly willing to admit to flaws that come entirely free of vindictiveness and cruelty. In an age of widespread buffoonery, it's a pleasure and a relief to have Kreider restore a little faith."
– Joshua Ferris, author of The Dinner Party and Other Stories
“Not only smart, but admission-against-interest honest—a winning combination, and rare."
– Lionel Shriver
"Tim Kreider is one of my favorite living writers, no exaggeration...His wisdom is counterintuitive and therefore all the wiser; his humor is dark in ways that let light in where it's needed most. This isn't a book about one man's relationship to women as much as it's a chart of the collision course of human need in all its wrenching, perverse, gorgeous, hilarious forms. It's his best stuff yet."
– Meghan Daum, author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
"Tim Kreider may be the most subversive soul in America and his subversions—by turns public and intimate, political and cultural—are just what our weary, mixed-up nation needs."
– Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls
"Tim Kreider's writing is heartbreaking, brutal and hilarious—usually at the same time. He can do in a few pages what I need several hours of screen time and tens of millions to accomplish. And he does it better. Come to think of it, I'd rather not do a blurb. I am beginning to feel bad about myself."
– Judd Apatow
– David Foster Wallace
"In a style reminiscent of Orwell, E.B. White and David Sedaris, an affable hero gamely bumbles through adventures rich with moments of fleeting profundity and moral reckoning...his depictions of the arc from ignorance to wisdom are reliably deft...Kreider is a curious and compassionate observer and a fantastic wit—I laughed to tears more than once. Though he excels at romantic comedy, the the essays that stray from that convention resound longer...pleasurable, well-wrought essays."
– New York Times Book Review
"[Kreider's] essays are beautifully written, with just enough humor to balance his spikiness, and will please lovers of fine writing.”
"Kreider... writes like a smart, funny friend; his essays feel like late-night conversations that you don’t want to end."
– The Seattle Times
"Kreider isn’t solely a humorist; he’s also part philosopher, part psychologist, part poet. Paired with his depth of insight into the human condition and startlingly sharp observations, this intimate collection is as hilarious as it is poignant, as it explores what it means to love and be loved—even if it’s love shared with your 19-year-old cat. "
– Baltimore Magazine
"Kreider is...an inimitable American essayist. He reliably, intelligently, wittily states the hesitated-over, the unspoken, the perhaps, the after-last-call-drunken-theory-of-the-universe that actually might have been brilliant...His ideas are sometimes risky or incomplete, but I’ve almost never encountered them anywhere else; in style, he sits on the shelf between the quick humor of Dave Barry and the gentle, erudite persuasion of Virginia Woolf. When reading Tim Kreider, I feel as if he’s stated what’s already in my mind."
– Another Chicago Magazine
"Much of the collection's strength comes from wry ruminations on his non-romantic relationships...Kreider's observations cut deep, sharply delivered in the midst of what he might sometimes call 'mush.' It's no surprise that David Foster Wallace declared, 'Kreider rules,' or that Kreider counts Richard Russo and Judd Apatow as fans. His precision and candor coexist like a just-sharpened razor slicing into soft fruit, sweet, lovely, messy and sustaining."
– Shelf Awareness
"Come for the arresting cover, stay for the author's trenchant ruminations on his relationships with women...Like all the best essayists, Kreider finds words for the ineffable...he'll open your eyes to the many varieties of love."
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