October 23, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 3

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    Author Kirn to read from work-in-progress Tuesday

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Walter Kirn

    Walter Kirn—successful novelist, essayist for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Esquire, former literary editor of GQ, critic for The New York Times book review—bluntly acknowledges the importance of his Princeton education. “It gave me access to the ruling class.”

    But he calls his undergraduate years at the Ivy League school “the darkest period of my life.”

    Two years ago, Kirn, this year’s Robert Vare nonfiction writer-in-residence, wrote a piece that chronicled his educational journey. An over-achieving, high-scoring, extracurricular-amassing student from rural Minnesota—inspired by another Minnesotan (F. Scott Fitzgerald) to head East—Kirn was profoundly disillusioned at Princeton, his dream school.

    “I left a safe, familiar place with values I understood with no apparent class structure, for a place where they were obsessive about class, where I had to ape language I didn’t really understand,” said Kirn. “I did not know how to negotiate this.”

    When he wrote about this “dark period,” at a place that looked like “heaven on earth,” Kirn assumed he was alone. At Princeton,” he recalled, “People are happy. It’s not OK to not be happy.” But after his essay “Lost in the Meritocracy” appeared in The Atlantic, Kirn said, “I learned that a lot of people feel the way I did.”

    Kirn is using his stint on campus as the Vare writer-in-residence to complete the final chapters of Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, a book-length examination of his experiences at Princeton, and later, at Oxford University. Kirn will read from the work-in-progress at 5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 28 in Classics 110.

    Lost in the Meritocracy, which Kirn calls a “very subjective account of an experience at an elite institution,” is intended to fill a void.

    “There have been books about feeling out of place at institutions, at churches, books about immigrants struggling in a new culture,” said Kirn, “but not, to my mind, a book about falling out of place at these fancy universities. It seems to be one of the last great mythical realms in which we don’t want to hear bad news.”

    The author of several books, including Thumbsucker (which was made into a 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn) and Up in the Air, Kirn is teaching “The Art of Nonfiction” this quarter in the College.

    After reading from a chapter of the book, Kirn will take questions.

    He said he is eager to get feedback, particularly from students. “It’s about the kind of experience some students are having today,” he said, “It’s the most vulnerable time in their lives—towering expectations, confronted with social disorientation, encounters with new vices. It’s tough.”

    For more information about Kirn, or the Robert Vare writer-in-residence program, visit http://varewir.uchicago.edu/.