Book Review: I Wear the Black Hat

I decided to venture out of my Christian non-fiction bubble and read “I Wear the Black Hat”, a secular pop social science book by Chuck Klosertman. It’s one of those books I heard about while listening to NPR. I figured I would be smarter for listening to it (I finally got my CD working in my car and can now check out audio books from the library). “I Wear the Black Hat” was mildly entertaining and Klosterman had some interesting insights into human nature but I, ultimately, found the book unsatisfying.

“I Wear the Black Hat” is a book about villains, real or perceived, or so says the subtitle. Klosterman is ultimately only able to deliver on the second half of that subtitle. This is really a book about perceived villains since Klosterman’s own secular worldview prevents him from making any sure claims of villainy beyond what most people perceive. He’s far more interested in how villainy is viewed than what it is in reality. This is probably exactly what a social science book is supposed to do. But for me, the clash of worldviews was jarring. It’s as though we were ever able to completely come to terms with each other.

Klosterman’s thesis is that the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least. Exhibit A for this thesis is Pen State Coach Joe Paterno. He’s not a villain because of anything he did but because he knew about what was going on but didn’t care enough to do what he needed to do to stop it. Klosterman’s thesis holds throughout but, by Klosterman’s own admission, falls apart with the quintessential villain of our time, Adolph Hitler. Hitler cared way too much about the wrong things, and didn’t really know a lot about the things that matter. But, even if the thesis didn’t have such a striking case against it, it would still ring hollow, since the whole concept of villainy, and thus the thesis of this book, is probably all just a personal and social construct anyway.

Throughout the book Klosterman wonders whether he himself is a villain. Does he wear the black hat? This is both central to the opening of the book and its conclusion. His conclusion wonderfully illustrates the overall tone of the book. He comes to the conclusion that he is the villain because of the way that he interprets a particular childhood “villain”, knowing that this rival of his is now probably really a good guy, but choosing to view him in the worst possible light. But Klosterman is less worried about his villainy than about the potential that all of this is utterly meaningless anyway. He concludes as follows:

In my own story, I am the villain…

I can see every alternative reality but I prefer to arbitrarily create my own. I know the truth, but I just don’t care.

It’s natural to think of one’s own life as a novel… and within that narrative we are always the central character. Thoughtful people try to overcome this compulsion but they usually fail. In fact, trying usually makes it worse.

I think people can pretend to do it, but they can’t pretend to themselves. I have slowly come to believe that overcoming this self-focused worldview is impossible… I don’t think the human mind is capable of getting outside of that box, and I’m not even sure if this limitation is even particularly problematic.

What makes me nervous is that this movie is … devoid of meaning – the auteur is a nihilist. What if I am the main character but still not the protagonist? What if there is no protagonist? What if there is just an uninteresting person thinking about himself because there is nothing else to think about. I wear the plaid hat.

In this and other passages I felt like I was reading Ecclesiastes 1-2 without the insight of Ecclesiastes 12:13.

I’m really not sure what conclusions to draw from all of this other than a few personal reflections. First, it was eye opening, and a bit sad, to read something written from such a different perspective on reality. I probably should read outside my perspective more often. Second, I’m grateful that my worldview allows for a foundational understanding of evil. How are it must be to always be in danger of having your rug pulled out from under you. Third, “I Wear the Black Hat” is not a bad book (though it does have it’s share of crude language). It is well written and interesting, but it feels ultimately hollow. It was a cream puff, not a steak dinner (but it was still more meaty than a lot of “Christian” books out there). Finally I don’t struggle with the same doubt about whether or not I am a villain. I know that I am. But I also don’t struggle with wondering whether or not my life has any meaning. There is a protagonist in my story. It’s not me, and that’s a good thing. It’s Jesus, and he is able to transform me out of my villainy. He is able to replace my black hat with white robe. And he is the one who infuses my life with meaning.