Saturday, October 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #275: What Were They Thinking? by Bruce Felton

One of the most pleasant, and least respected, emotions is Schadenfreude: the delight in someone else's misfortune. Of course it's wrong to take pleasure in someone else's pain -- but sometimes we can at least believe that they deserve it.

Bruce Felton's book What Were They Thinking? is a big Schadenfreude pie with added dramatic irony sauce: it collects a thousand or so stories of people who did really stupid things, and retells those stories so that we may delight in how we're not any of those people. Felton's aim is not scholarly, so he doesn't have any citations, and many of the stories don't have a single identifiable detail that could lead to tracking down sources. (So one may suspect that at least a decent fraction of these stories are apocryphal -- but that really doesn't matter, since the only point is to entertain and provide a bad example.)

The stories are told mostly in narrative form -- some are short enough that they turn into almost bullet points in a list, as with dumb criminals who all did the same non-smart thing -- and organized into over a dozen chapters, loosely themed to aspects of life (sports, business, death, food, war, politics, science, and so forth). Some of the lessons are subtle and some are obvious, but they all come down to basically the same idea: don't do stupid things.

I read this book in the smallest room of my house, a few pages at a time. It's exceptionally well-suited for such use, or for some other location where there may be only a few minutes to read, like a tree-stand or a doctor's waiting room. It's in no way serious or of any importance whatsoever, though reading it may just possibly stop a few stupid acts, so it may actually be more useful than most books.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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