The Literary Horizon: Lost in the Meritocracy, Born Round

Memoirs and I don’t exactly get along, as a genre–while I firmly believe that one’s life is a very good story, that doesn’t mean I want to read it apropos of nothing. However, two memoirs have popped up on my radar that do more than just recount a life. They examine the American educational system that can produce successful students with little true learning and one man’s eternal conflict with food.

Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn

“Percentile is destiny in America.”

So says Walter Kirn, a peerless observer and interpreter of American life, in this whip-smart memoir of his own long strange trip through American education. Working his way up the ladder of standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and class rankings, Kirn launched himself eastward from his rural Minnesota hometown to the ivy-covered campus of Princeton University. There he found himself not in a temple of higher learning so much as an arena for gamesmanship, snobbery, social climbing, ass-kissing, and recreational drug use, where the point of literature classes was to mirror the instructor’s critical theories and actual reading of the books under consideration was optional. Just on the other side of the “bell curve’s leading edge” loomed a complete psychic collapse.

LOST IN THE MERITOCRACY reckons up the costs of a system where the point is simply to keep accumulating points and never to look back—or within. It’s a remarkable book that suggests the first step toward intellectual fulfillment is getting off the treadmill that is the American meritocracy. Every American who has spent years of his or her life there will experience many shocks of recognition while reading Walter Kirn’s sharp, rueful, and often funny book—and likely a sense of liberation at its end.

via Amazon

I am very good at multiple choice. Between process of elimination and good old fashioned guessing, I do pretty good for myself. But most of the time, my success at multiple choice has little to do with my actual knowledge of a subject. So the idea that a person could succeed without actually learning is frighteningly possible to me, which is why Lost in the Meritocracy turned my head when I came across in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

The New York Times apparently quite enjoyed it (the review is mostly just a summary), and I find Kirn’s need for approval and suitable disapproval of his former self interesting. Tina from Bookshipper also enjoyed it, praising its readability. I think I’ll go put this on hold right now.

Lost in the Meritocracy was published on May 19, 2009.

Born Round by Frank Bruni

The New York Times restaurant critic’s heartbreaking and hilarious account of how he learned to love food just enough after decades of wrestling with his weight

Frank Bruni was born round. Round as in stout, chubby, and hungry, always and endlessly hungry. He grew up in a big, loud Italian family in White Plains, New York, where meals were epic, outsize affairs. At those meals, he demonstrated one of his foremost qualifications for his future career: an epic, outsize appetite for food. But his relationship with eating was tricky, and his difficulties with managing it began early.

When he was named the restaurant critic for the New York Times in 2004, he knew enough to be nervous. He would be performing one of the most closely watched tasks in the epicurean universe; a bumpy ride was inevitable, especially for someone whose writing beforehand had focused on politics, presidential campaigns, and the Pope.

But as he tackled his new role as one of the most loved and hated tastemakers in the New York restaurant world, he also had to make sense of a decades-long love-hate affair with food, which had been his enemy as well as his friend. Now he’d have to face down this enemy at meal after indulgent meal. His Italian grandmother had often said, “Born round, you don’t die square.” Would he fall back into his worst old habits? Or had he established a truce with the food on his plate?

In tracing the highly unusual path Bruni traveled to become a restaurant critic, Born Round tells the captivating story of an unpredictable journalistic odyssey and provides an unflinching account of one person’s tumultuous, often painful lifelong struggle with his weight. How does a committed eater embrace food without being undone by it? Born Round will speak to every hungry hedonist who has ever had to rein in an appetite to avoid letting out a waistband, and it will delight anyone interested in matters of family, matters of the heart, and the big role food plays in both.

via Amazon

As a Frank, I am no stranger to meals that last for hours–four hours, in fact. (As proud of my French heritage as I am, I could really do without those.) But Born Round caught my eye for a different reason; a gentleman with issues regarding food ends up a food critic. That’s quite classic conflict that adds enough zazz to the traditional memoir to catch my eye. (Also, I read a bit of it in The Times Magazine and enjoyed it.)

The Citizen Reader loved it, especially Bruni’s description of food, which sounds absolutely mouthwatering (as one would expect from a food critic). Joe Yonan at The Washington Post liked it for the most part, especially shedding light on eating disorders in men, but thinks Bruni’s conclusion is a bit too pat to ring true.

Born Round was published on August 20, 2009.

3 thoughts on “The Literary Horizon: Lost in the Meritocracy, Born Round

  1. Born Round is on my list. I loved his food/review column in the Times and was sorry to see him go. I read part of his book online and found his thoughts on food and life were interesting and sort of sad. I’m not a memoir person either but I’d still like to read this one.

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