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Books: Complete And Utter Failure
When faced with crushing, humiliating defeat, some people shrug and move on while others are prone to dwell. Author Neil Steinberg is a dweller. It helps that the failures he focuses on are (mostly) not his own. Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runner-Ups, Never-Weres and Total Flops tells the story of those who have reached for that brass ring and toppled out of their chairs trying.
The first chapter sets the stage by chronicling the history of product failure: items enthusiastically thrust onto the marketplace, only to be greeted with apathy or derision. One vignette recounts how toymaker Ideal bought a proposal for a line of cute dolls with fluttering wings called "Fairies". One of the Ideal honchos, however, just had to put his mark on the product before it hit the shelves, and insisted they add halos and rename the dolls "Angel Babies". Unfortunately, no one would touch the dolls when they premiered at the New York Toy Fair. All the toy buyers raised the same objection, one which had never occurred to anyone at Ideal during the development process: "So let me get this straight," the buyers said, "These are dead babies?"
That's one of many laugh-out-loud anecdotes collected in this slim volume. Subsequent chapters discuss the various attempts to scale Mt. Everest before Sir Hillary actually made it to the top, the quixotic pursuit of perpetual motion and cold fusion, and the effect that Bad Timing can have on someone like Elisha Gray, who invented the telephone but filed for a patent two hours after Alexander Graham Bell registered his own, less elegant device.
Complete and Utter Failure, while enjoyable throughout, is something of a hodge-podge. At times it comes close to becoming just another Litany Book, where an author purports to "investigate" a phenomenon but actually just fills 300 pages with examples of the phenomenon (James Gleick's Faster and Randall Kennedy's Nigger are prime examples of the Litany Book.) Elsewhere, it strays pretty far afield from the theme -- I don't see how the burning of the library of Alexandria can really be chalked up as a "failure," per se.
The section on the National Spelling Bee, however, largely makes up for the deficiencies in the rest. (Complete and Utter Failure was recommended to me by a yeti reader in the Spellbound thread, by the way). This chapter is more like what I wish the whole book had been -- an in-depth look at an event that is structured in such a way that failure is a foregone conclusion for virtually everyone who competes (despite the demonstrably false announcement, at the beginning of each and every round of the National Spelling Bee the bee, that "everyone who has gotten this far is a winner"). This chapter weaves together interviews with bee participants, first-hand accounts of the event, and philosophical musings on the nature of failure into a neat little essay on the subject. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this chapter was written first and the rest of the book built around it.
The remainder of the book is quite fun to read, due to Steinberg's great (and relentlessly self-deprecating) sense of humor, and because he amusingly compares the history of failure with his own personal experience in this particular realm. (Steinberg's first brush with failure came after being hornswoggled by Captain Kangaroo). So while somewhat uneven, Complete and Utter Failure fails to live down to its title. It is an enjoyable treatise on a subject most of prefer not to dwell upon.
For a sampler of Steinberg's writing, check out his regular column for the Chicago Sun-Times.Posted on August 04, 2003 to Books