From the Publisher
“A funny, self-mocking memoir about how persistently Mr. Kirn went astray. . . . Great fun.” —The New York Times
“The witty, self-castigating story of the author’s single-minded quest to succeed at a series of tests and competitions that took him from one of the lowest-ranked high schools in Minnesota to Princeton.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Very few people could get away with complaining about attending Princeton University, but Walter Kirn does. . . . Darkly hilarious.” —The Plain Dealer
“Scathing and funny. . . . Too delicious.” —Newsweek
“Hilarious. . . . Kirn recounts the many ways that the America educational rat race betrayed him.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Tough, funny, and moving. . . . What’s such great fun about the book is the intense good humor with which he looks back, and the wonderful portraits he provides of the side characters in his life. . . . There’s a kind of joyous cackle behind these colorful scenes, and a sadness, too, both finally giving way to a clean-edged wisdom that infiltrates his story as he leads us toward his moral awakening.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Tartly funny.” —Newsday
“The revelation that skating on the surface of knowledge might kill him if he didn't cut it out was Kirn’s alone, but its impact registers far and wide.” —Elle
“A diverting memoir that has less to do with grades and standardized test scores than with a Mormon-raised farm boy’s difficulty adjusting to the temptations and prejudices of an Ivy League school.” —The Miami Herald
“A smart, ambitious writer. . . . Kirn’s sentences would be a delight even if they were empty. That they address a serious subject—the Ivy League training that is less about learning than about preparing its beneficiaries to join the ruling class—seems like a bonus.” —Bloomberg News
“A fine narrative of what it is to be young, lost, deeply immersed in drugs, and frequently on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” —Bookslut
“Kirn shows, better than any recent book, how our educational system is perverted from beginning to end. . . . Kirn’s is one idealist’s stirring recollection of what it took to awaken himself from the sloth imposed by the Ivy League’s bureaucratic-meritocracy.” —The Daily Beast
“Our only wish was for more.” —McSweeney’s
…a funny, self-mocking memoir about how persistently Mr. Kirn went astray…its college stories are deft and often great fun…It's easy to believe that he experienced terrible angst under the social and academic pressures of his college years. But Mr. Kirn has reduced that pain to overly apt poetic justice: a narrative device that turns him aphasic and makes the education process run in reverse. No matter: it's clear from the authorial voice of Lost in the Meritocracy that he bounded back nicely. And he figured out how to frame and package his memories with reader-pleasing finesse, no thanks to his formal education.
The New York Times
As tragedies go, not getting what you want is the straightforward kind, and getting it can be the ironic variety. But there is also the existential tragedy of not knowing what you want to begin with. That's the species of catastrophe recounted in Walter Kirn's memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, the witty, self-castigating story of the author's single-minded quest to succeed at a series of tests and competitions that took him from one of the lowest-ranked high schools in Minnesota to Princeton.
The New York Times Book Review
In his hilarious memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy, Kirn recounts the many ways that the American educational rat race betrayed him.
The Washington Post
Kirn, a noted book critic and novelist (Thumbsucker), writes a memoir of his educational journey, describing his travels from rural Minnesota to the upper echelon of the educational meritocracy, Princeton University. His main point is that "percentile is destiny in America." Kirn says he was able to climb so high not because of any innate gifts or knowledge; rather, he learned to play the game of scoring well on standardized tests, collecting extracurricular activities, and concentrating on class rankings. When he got to Princeton in the late 1970s, he discovered an entire subculture based not on learning and acquiring knowledge but on networking, backbiting, and "parroting" professors' words and pet theories back to them-reading assigned books was largely optional. In the end, Kirn's recreational drug use led to a case of aphasia and the need to relearn much of what he thought he knew. This indictment of America's higher education system, particularly of the elite universities, suggests that real learning takes place through experience. It is insightful, well written, and occasionally humorous and would be an excellent choice for all readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/08.]
Slapdash memoir from Time and GQ contributing editor Kirn (The Unbinding, 2007, etc.). From the moment he aced the SAT at his rural Minnesota high school (he doesn't reveal his score), the author's fate, like those of his fellow overachievers, was sealed. "I have . . . comrades in estrangement," he writes, "way out here on the bell curve's leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the vaguest survival instructions." Kirn aims to burst the pretensions of the American ideal of meritocracy-astutely analyzed in Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test (1999)-but the narrative is too narrowly focused on the author's personal ascent through the ranks, from elementary school through Princeton and Oxford. Many of his experiences-the desire to leave Middle America and reinvent himself as a respected intellectual; his rage against affluent roommates who expected him to cough up a percentage of the expense of buying high-end furniture; his humiliation after being savaged by jealous, less-talented students in a writing workshop; his cocaine-and-sex binge with the daughter of a wealthy art dealer-make for evocative, entertaining reading, but it's unclear how they advance his argument against the meritocracy. Kirn's strengths are honesty and humor. He admits that he, like many who attend Princeton and other Ivy League schools, was a social climber driven by the desire be a part of the East Coast Elites, not by a hunger for knowledge. He says he faked his way through college, and that enlightenment came after a mental breakdown. Kirn also uses his considerable powers as a novelist to paint vivid scenes of comic debauchery. Some of the drunken, drug-addled escapades arereminiscent of The Ginger Man, but J.P. Donleavy wisely avoided the temptation to cast his antihero's drunken recklessness as a metaphor. Ill-suited for a book-length work, Kirn's premise found more effective expression as a feature in The Atlantic. Agent: Cynthia Cannell/Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency