Failure of a Genre, Success of a Book
The success of “self-help books” for the publishing industry might only be matched by the genre’s failure to provide innovative and beneficial advice. I just started Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America; I eagerly await her to fully confirm what I’ve already assumed by my anecdotal exposure to the success-is-guaranteed-by-a-successful-attitude cult of thought. Yet just because the genre is defined by its failures doesn’t mean it can’t ever have a success. Andreas Kluth, the West Coast correspondent for The Economist and my blogging buddy, has produced a real tonic of a book to counter the success-is-simple snake oil. Readers will know something is different right away: It’s certainly no “self-help book.” Kluth’s Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure is about how Success and Failure are both “impostors,” as Kipling wrote. The stories in the book aren’t a guide to success but a historical survey and ironic examination of it. Kluth populates his mediation on success and failure with many of humanity’s important characters and archetypes – an Avengers of world history.
The author’s fascination with the one-eyed Carthaginian general pervades (invades?) Hannibal’s story and that excitement carries Kluth’s narrative and provides his most detailed example. By using archetypal figures from history, we’re supposed to see how their successes and failures map onto our own in unique ways, so I felt like I was cheating a bit when I kept thinking of how Hannibal’s military campaigns clarified our modern military campaigns.
After three years of high drama and adrenaline – of Alpine peaks, Etruscan swamps, and three of the bloodiest battles in human history – there now followed thirteen excruciatingly long years of limbo.
Both Hannibal and Fabius understood that the invincible invader of Italy was now, paradoxically, captive in Italy, as though it were a shrinking prison of success. The fact that Hannibal was still officially successful made it impossible for him to escape this captivity. If he suffered a military disaster of some sort, Hannibal would have had to evacuate Italy. It would have been humiliating, but he would have started over, with a different strategy, and the overall war might have gone in a new direction. But Hannibal was still victorious, and victors don’t flee.
Replace a few names and Kluth might be writing about America’s War on Terror. For approximately 12 years our armed forces have gone from battle to battle without suffering a military defeat and it’s certainly racked up some stunning successes. After all, we have the greatest military the world has ever known! But just as Hannibal’s strategy never led to the Fall of Rome, our endlessly successful wars won’t lead to the End of Terrorism. Our official successes continue to cost us more in treasure, blood, and liberties as we go from victory to victory abroad.
Not all of Kluth’s cast are as compelling as Hannibal. His credulous retelling of the power of an aikido master undermines his wider project of grounding his lessons in history. For generations aikido promoters have sold stories of making enemies “fly through the air without ever being touched” and beating “thirty people” with hardly any martial aggression from this so-called martial art. Evidence for these abilities is as invisible as the ki they use against their opponents. It’s still a good story, but the counter-evidence of the art’s efficacy is concussive. That said, Kluth’s point about using the intentions of your opponents against them is worthwhile. Using the instability of attackers is better exhibited by BJJ, Judo, and wrestling; I’m sure there is an interesting figure somewhere in their histories.
Two characters had me pondering my own career and life trajectory. Instead of examining the art of Picasso and Cezanne, Kluth draws the arcs of their lives and probably has younger readers asking, “which one am I!?” Right now, I feel a bit like the “wanderer” – Paul Cezanne didn’t know what job he’d end up with and often felt pessimistic about his future. With a poor economy and without a specific and set career goal to strategize toward, Cezanne’s biography offers support. Most days I just hope I’m climbing up the arc as Cezanne ended up doing.
Of course, maybe focusing so exclusively on a career is a bit like focusing only on tactics and forgetting strategy. A balance is probably necessary to “fulfill my human potential” and “self-actualize.” But extremely few people ever become totally comfortable with one’s own personality and life despite the obviousness of the objective. One of the book’s better examples of this success is Albert Einstein.
Try to tell me that man isn’t transcendently comfortable. Kluth isn’t a hagiographer for any of his subjects; instead, he spotlights their faults. I was surprised to discover Einstein’s personality defects and professional failures that met him after his glory years. Part of being successful, as we learn, is being able to see the world as it is, “flowing” with disasters, and “not dwelling on flaws.”
Andreas Kluth’s profile of success and failure isn’t perfect. The book ends with conventional catalogue of lessons that he basically apologizes for before listing (although, wisely, they’re actually pretty good summaries of themes laced with new insights rather than just simplified bullet-point regurgitations). Even if you finish without adopting any of the book’s themes or lessons, the history and quality of storytelling make Kluth worth reading. Hannibal and Me may not be perfect from tactic to tactic but it takes risks and transcends the failed genre.