Cannonball Read III: Being Wrong by Katheryn Schulz
It would be easy to simply say that reading Being Wrong is a small but powerful life changing experience. It very much is, but just saying that is a bit of a cop-out. The book is a brilliantly written examination of the concept of error from every perspective imaginable. Schulz explores wrongness as an outside observer, a philosopher, a victim, and a compassionate friend. By so fully embracing the idea on every level, she synthesizes a unified thesis from many disparate parts and supports every conclusion she draws with the best in logic and anecdote.
At the core of Being Wrong is a suggestion. Not advice, so much as a recommendation for people interested in living a little better. Embrace your mistakes. It’s not about making mistakes and not feeling bad about it. Schulz wants us all to live with our errors a little more and not shove them away in a flurry of denial and justification. She goes on to examine the reasons why we are so adverse to being wrong, from the biological (it doesn’t make evolutionary sense to be uncertain about anything), to the social (our culture rejects leader figures who are indecisive), to the psychological (depressed people have much more accurate worldviews than balanced personalties).
Schulz is at her strongest when she is telling a story. The highlights of the book are the anecdotes she uses to set up each of her chapters. The stories include everything from Alan Greenspan’s unwavering faith in the economy proved wrong, to the touching story of an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK becoming one of the frontline fighters in the war for desegregated schools. Schulz has a deft hand for splicing these stories with the philosophical and scientific meat that connect them back to the reader’s everyday experience. She does tend to get bogged down in some of the dense history of the topic, but the frequent footnotes and witty asides help to break these thick sections up a little.
The text itself induces stumbling, at least for me. It’s probably because the subject matter makes me paranoid that I’ve missed something, or misinterpreted a critical conclusion. To that end, I’d really recommend reading this book in chapters, rather than tackling the entire thing all at once. The writing lends itself to easy sectioning and while reading order is important, the ideas are all pretty sticky, which makes it easier to read over time.
Close to the end of the third section, Schulz examines the story of Penny Beerntsen, a woman who was raped and ended up falsely accusing the wrong man of the crime. He was eventually proved innocent, but in the interim, she had struggled to get closure in other ways. She wanted to understand the reasons people did horrible things to each other. To do this, she volunteered in prisons and really got to know the realities of being a convicted criminal in the United States. When the verdict came down proving that she had identified the wrong man, she was horrified, but she instantly accepted her mistake and wanted to somehow make up for it. Rather than try to deny her fault, she only sought to improve the life of the man she had helped get thrown into prison unjustly.
While this is an extreme example, I can’t think of a better example of being a truly human person. It would be an exaggeration to say I want be like Penny, but her example is one that I can value as someone who can be wrong and can be stupid about it. And really, we all fall into that category sometimes. Anyone who has ever been a critic of any kind knows the giddy thrill of being unquestionably right. (You cannot successfully argue against opinion.) It is never a bad thing to gain a little perspective on that feeling, and that’s just what this book has allowed me to do.
For more of Fofo’s reviews, check out his blog, Librum Incurso.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more info click here.
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