[Apparently the robotic censors that patrol the reviews will not allow a review to post that actually uses the title of this book. This review will therefore use A-holes to represent the book's title, and a-hole to refer to the singular form of that word.]
Aaron James took a break from the philosopher's customary search for the meaning of life to ponder a more burning question: What does it mean to be an a-hole? I have the sense that James wrote A-holes so he could share his complaints about surfers who behave like a-holes, particularly Brazilians. Whatever his motivation, and despite his earnest attempt to subject a-holes to scholarly thought, much of A-holes is enjoyable simply because the topic is so appealing. Everyone, after all, has an opinion about a-holes.
A-holes consistently cut in line, interrupt, and engage in name-calling. They do not play well with others (in James' language, they are not fully cooperative members of society). Many (perhaps most) people occasionally behave like an a-hole without becoming an a-hole. As a theory of the a-hole, James posits that an a-hole is a person who enjoys "special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people." Although I think "a-hole" is pretty much self-defining, in the sense of "I know one when I see one," I like James' definition. I think it's a definition rather than a theory, but I'm probably just quibbling about semantics (which is pretty much the philosopher's job description, making it a battle I can't win). Whether it is a theory or a definition, after he finishes parsing it, James politely suggests that it is up to the reader to decide whether to agree with it. James is plainly no a-hole.
James tells us that a-holes are morally repugnant but not truly evil. If you're interested in standard philosophical discussions of moral behavior and moral responsibility with references to the likes of Aristotle, Kant, and Buber, you'll find them here. Those of us who needed strong coffee to make it through our philosophy classes are probably hoping for something more fun than a rehash of Martin Buber in a book titled A-holes. We're looking for the author to name names. Happily, James does so (although not without some preliminary hand-wringing about whether calling out a-holes is something only an a-hole would do). From Simon Cowell to Mel Gibson, from Donald Trump to Steve Jobs, from Ann Coulter to Bill O'Reilly, James finds a-holes in every walk of life. James even suggests that book reviewers can be a-holes (oh my!) although he does so in the context of academia.
Consistent with his definitional/taxonomic approach, James classifies a-holes by type, including the boorish a-hole (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore), the smug a-hole (Richard Dawkins, Larry Summers), the a-hole boss (Naomi Campbell), the presidential a-hole (Hugo Chavez), the reckless a-hole (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld), the self-aggrandizing a-hole (Ralph Nader), the cable news a-hole (Neil Cavuto, Keith Olbermann), and the delusional a-hole (Kanye West, Wall Street bankers). James covers the spectrum from liberals to conservatives in his search for a-holes and applies his test with, I think, a nonpartisan outlook. Of course, some readers will be displeased that he has called a political favorite an a-hole, but again, James rather politely invites disagreement and urges readers to apply the test as they see fit.
James' approach to categorization lends itself to party games. You can make up categories James overlooked, like the sports a-hole (George Steinbrenner, Michael Vick), or you can add names to the categories he's invented. Don't worry, there are plenty more a-holes identified in the book -- the names I've cherry-picked are illustrative only -- as well as some categories I haven't mentioned, but you'll easily think of more. The book is short and the world is filled with a-holes.
Returning to the realm of philosophy, James considers whether a-holes are morally responsible for being a-holes, which leads to a discussion of whether a-holes have free will. James' conclusion is at odds with the answer you would get from a neuroscientist like Bruce Hood, but whether you blame a-holes or accept that they can't help being who they are, you're still stuck with them. James reasons that a-holes are generally male because they are shaped by the culture of gender, although I think he puts too fine a point on it when he draws subtle distinctions between a-holes and beetches (another word I altered to avoid the censor, but you know what I mean). I also think he's a bit naive when he argues that, for cultural reasons, American men are more likely to be a-holes than Japanese men, a proposition with which many Southeast Asians (not to mention the surviving residents of Nanking) would disagree.
James includes a chapter on how to manage a-holes (short version: you really can't, but you can try to make yourself feel good) and a chapter that suggests how capitalist societies (which encourage the sense of entitlement on which a-holes thrive) can deteriorate when the a-hole ethic takes root (short version: greed isn't good, Gordon Gecko notwithstanding). The concluding chapter tells us how to find a peaceful life in a world full of a-holes (short version: reconcile yourself to the things you cannot change while hoping for a better world). These chapters give James a chance to apply the thoughts of Plato and St. Augustine and the Stoics and Rousseau and even Jesus to the topic of a-holes. Heavy thinkers will probably enjoy those discussions. Lightweight thinkers, like me, will enjoy the name naming while looking forward to the party games the book inspires.