Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James — Review

aholes bookAssholes: A Theory by Aaron James

RaeleighReads rating: 2 out of 5 coffee cups

“If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.”

As one might expect, James begins by defining the term asshole. What is an asshole? According to James, it is someone who has an “entrenched sense of entitlement.” This someone believes himself entitled to special privileges ALL of the time as opposed to the rest of us who only believe ourselves to be entitled to special privileges SOME of the time.

James works his way through this theory with quite a bit of philosophical jargon, but the point of this is pretty obvious: he is attempting to create a theory about the word asshole — one we are all already familiar with and have our own opinions about — so he had better do it pretty systematically or we will all rip him a new, well, asshole.

This book is not really for the everyday reader. It is written in an academic, albeit a humorous academic, style complete with footnotes and enough technical language in the first few pages to scare away all but the most tenacious of average readers. That said, I did enjoy the comical paintings of everyday asshole behavior. In particular, I enjoyed chapter two, which characterizes the various types of assholes and provides us with real, modern day examples of these people — Rush Limbaugh, Kanye West, and Anne Coulter to name a few. Unfortunately, for me, that is where my enjoyment ended. Chapter three was merely an extenuation of chapter two and accomplished nothing with its tedious explanation of the modern types of assholes (as opposed to the classic types of assholes outlined in chapter two). Why did those need to be separate chapters? Is there really a difference between a more classic type of asshole and a modern type of asshole? Don’t they exhibit the same kinds of destructive behaviors? To me, this seemed like an unnecessary distinction to make, and the characterizations in chapter three were neither as enlightening nor as humorous as the ones in chapter two.

I had to force myself to read chapter four: Gender, Nature, Blame. Can assholes be both men and women? Yup! Does nature or nurture have something to do with how people become assholes? Yes, but thank you for putting written words to the thought that our gendered (binary) culture is mostly to blame here. Can we blame assholes for being assholes? Is that really a question that needs to be asked? I guess if you are a philosopher, then the answer is yes. I, however, did not need a whole chapter to tell me these things.

Okay, chapter five, you have officially lost me. Here is the chapter we’ve been waiting for — Asshole Management. It’s supposed to be helpful, thoughtful, and solve all of our assholish problems. Sorry to say that this book does not provide us with a method for dealing with these incredibly arrogant humans. James’ advice? 1. “…don’t try to change the asshole, and cooperate only on your own terms.” 2. …”take a stand at the right time.” o_0 *goes back through the whole chapter* *shakes book upside down to see if additional pages fall out*

Now, in all fairness, this book did not promise to be a how-to, and it did not promise to solve the problem of the asshole. Maybe it was too much to expect James to come up with a practical asshole management theory. Maybe.

Now that we’ve seen how assholes affect us one-on-one and in group settings, we get to see how they impact the whole world in Asshole Capitalism. Let me tell you, the idea of an asshole capitalist nation, as opposed to just a capitalist nation, is truly bleak. If asshole capitalism takes over, all of us non-asshole folks (who James calls cooperative people) will simply quit making the effort to create a better world where we stand up to assholes. We’ll let them win! I sincerely hope this never happens. In James’ opinion the United States is dangerously close to asshole capitalism — on the precipice he says. A frightening thought.

The last chapter tells us all something we already know…again. Assholes are a fact of life. The idea here is that we should reconcile ourselves to a world full of assholes, while still trying to remain cooperative people. Meaning, we should be people who stand up — in the right way and at the right time (thanks so much chapter five) — to assholes. That can’t be the end of the book, can it? No, thank God, the book ends with a letter to an asshole. At the last instant, James pulls out some additional wit and some philosophical references that actually add to his argument, rather than seeming gratuitous. The letter is fairly amusing, is posed to some asshole out there who James is trying to get to “see the light”, and ends in all sincerity with James saying he wants to save the asshole’s life.

If you are someone who enjoys modern day philosophy, if names like Kant, Rousseau, and Hobbes actually mean something to you, and if you enjoy argument for argument’s sake, then you will likely find something to take away from this book. Academicians may enjoy the systematic way James defines, and forms a universe for, the asshole. They may also enjoy the book as a break from whatever research they are currently working on. I, however, find the book obvious, repetitive, and unnecessary. In the end, all James does is gather up some rigorous language to surround the word asshole. Did we need an entire book for that? As James says, “…for many of us as regards most assholes, the appropriate maxim is: ‘Don’t waste your time.'”

Some opinions you may be interested in:

“Enjoyable…Light-hearted yet thought-provoking…Importantly, [James makes] us confront a crucial question, which, I believe, we ask ourselves all too infrequently: How much of an asshole am I?” –Alex Balk, Slate

“James’s keen intelligence overwhelms you, and you realize that Assholes is helpful, stimulating, and very timely.”
—Nick Hornby, The Believer

“Aaron James provides us with a delightful philosophical romp through the world of assholes. I was especially tickled by his analysis of different types: smug assholes, royal assholes, the presidential asshole, corporate assholes, the reckless assholes, to name a few.”
—Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of the New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss

Some other opinions you may find useful:

“I’m required to read this for college. Can it be over already!? What a repetitive snooze fest!” –Anonymous

“The only reason I can guess that this book is on the New York Times Best seller list is for the eye-catching title. This is basically a 200 page book that tries to define the nuances that make a person an A-hole. It is a very dull read, rehashing the same points over and over to fill pages. I can spare you reading the first 100 pages in two points: 1) An A-hole doesn’t recognize your moral rights and believes that they are exempt. 2) If you are worried about being labeled an A-hole, you are probably not one. The rest of the book goes into tedious detail about what an A-hole is and offers no real suggestions for how to deal with these types of people.” –Jello on Amazon

I give this two out of five coffee cups because I really enjoyed chapter two and the letter to an asshole. And there you have it, Assholes: A Theory.