Explanation – the kind that makes you rethink what you already know and marvel at what you don’t know – is an art. It’s a fine line between instruction and condescension, sufficient detail and superfluous detail. At times, listening to these three new audiobooks, I felt really poor soul cornered by a crypto bro at the bar, the freshman in the wrong lecture hall. But there were also times when converging threads came together in my own understanding – of my generation, of human behavior and physiology – and made all the fleeting frustrations worth it.
If this year’s Super Bowl halftime show made you feel old, understand this: It’s been long enough since the turn of the 21st century to warrant a full rundown of the quirks of the 1990s. Chuck Klosterman reads aloud THE NINETIES: A Book (Penguin Audio, 12 hours, 39 minutes), a collection of essays examining everything from grunge and the alleged apathy of Generation X to the brief craze for Crystal Pepsi (“There are many reasons not to drink Pepsi, but ‘It’s too dark’ has never been among them” ). This is a version of Klosterman that I didn’t immediately recognize. While its 2004 pop culture plunge, “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” blew my little high school spirit with its balance of brutality and intelligence, “The Nineties” feels almost academic. And sometimes Klosterman is the aforementioned insufferable man at the bar. Phrases like — and I swear this is a genuine quote — “the tiramisu of heteronormative confusion” will delight some and alienate others. And yet I couldn’t stop listening to find out what aspect of my most formative decade he would explore next. Aside from the transcribing, here’s a narrator who might make it sound reasonable to draw a straight line between the launch of the Subaru Impreza and the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind.”
While there is some joy in getting lost in the weeds, it is also a relief to be brought back out into the open. Go to HOW TO BE PERFECT: The Right Answer to Every Moral Question (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hours, 13 minutes), by Michael Schur, the comedy writer and producer behind shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Down to the musical cues and audio cast (which includes actors Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Manny Jacinto, and Jameela Jamil), “How to Be Perfect” can be considered a complement to the author’s recent hit, “The Good Place.” The series is set in an afterlife where frozen yogurt is free and soul mates are guaranteed. The series was the result of Schur’s own quest to better understand morality. Philosophical concepts from Aristotelian virtue ethics to Kant’s categorical imperative leaked into the show, but in “How to Be Perfect” Schur goes all in on a single hypothesis: “If we can get past the fact that many of those philosophers are wildly dense prose that immediately gives you tension headaches, we can arm ourselves with their theories … and be a little better today than yesterday.”
Unsurprisingly, “How to Be Perfect” is very funny, its narration supported by interjections from the show’s cast members. And it’s also very clear and approachable, two adjectives that I don’t think apply in the field of philosophy. Schur, who was fact-checked and led by actual philosopher Todd May, would be the first to admit that his summary of (mostly) Western philosophy is far from exhaustive — the audiobook begins with an FAQ with various permutations of ” Who the hell do you think you are?” But Schur also does what the Enlightenment thinkers cannot do: give these great ideas a contemporary, real context. The audiobook got me thinking about my everyday actions in new ways: how a phone call to my mom might or might not align with ubuntu’s South African principles, or what Thich Nhat Hanh would think about listening to his mindfulness practice. lessons while I do three other tasks. For someone like me who hasn’t considered questions like “Should I punch my boyfriend in the face for no reason?” through a theoretical lens it is a perfect beginners course to analyze why people do what we do. I also learned what existentialism actually is.