You have probably have heard of Geoffrey Nunberg -- that brilliant and funny linguist on NPR. He has a brand new asshole book called Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First 60 years. I first heard about it a few weeks back when I was contacted by George Dobbins from the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He asked if I might moderate Nunberg's talk on August 15th, given we are now fellow asshole guys. I was honored to accept the invitation and I hope you can join us that evening -- you are in for a treat.
The book is a satisfying blend of great scholarship, wit, and splendid logic. It is a joy from start to finish, and the reviewers agree. I loved the first sentence of the Booklist review “Only an asshole would say this book is offensive. Sure, it uses the A-word a lot, but this is no cheap attempt to get laughs written by a B-list stand-up comic."
Nunberg starts with a magnificent first chapter called The Word, which talks about the battles between "Assholes and Anti-assholes." I love this sentence about the current state of public discourse in America "It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as assholes and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word." As he states later in the chapter, he doesn't have a stance for or against the word (although the very existence of the book strikes me as support for it), the aim of the book is to "explore the role that the notion of the asshole has come to play in our lives."
He then follows-up with one delightful chapter after another, I especially loved "The Rise of Talking Dirty," "The Asshole in the Mirror," and "The Allure of Assholes." I get piles of books every year about bullies, jerks, toxic workplaces, and on and on. Although this isn't a workplace book, it is the best book I have ever read that is vaguely related to the topic.
I admired how deftly he treated "The Politics of Incivility" in the chapter on "The Assholism of Public Life." Nunberg makes a compelling argument that critics on the right and the left both use the tactic of claiming that an opponent is rude, nasty, or indecent -- that they are acting like assholes and ought to apologize immediately. Nunberg documents "the surge of patently phony indignation for all sides," be it calling out people for "conservative incivility" or "liberal hate." He captures much of this weird and destructive game with the little joke "Mind your manners, asshole."
I am barely scratching the surface, there is so much wisdom here, and it is all so fun. Read the book. Read and listen to this little piece that Nunberg did recently on NPR. This part is lovely:
Well, profanity makes hypocrites of us all. But without hypocrisy, how could profanity even exist? To learn what it means to swear, a child has to both hear the words said and be told that it's wrong to say them, ideally by the same people. After all, the basic point of swearing is to demonstrate that your emotions have gotten the better of you and trumped your inhibitions
We hope to see you at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on August 15th, it should be good fun.