Top critical review
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a weak book that may be unintentionally insightful
on 27 November 2010
My three star rating averages two stars for the quality of the book assessed in the usual way, and four stars for the possibly unintentional insights offered by the author, a self-confessed narcissist.
First, the usual assessment: I was very excited to receive such a highly praised and extensive book, confident that, with the unusually high price, I was about to finally read a proper book on narcissism. Ultimately, though, the book was disappointing:
1. the book is largely a FAQ, a structure that has allowed disparate material published in various places (including online fora) to be pulled together as a book. Thus, chapters repeat material verbatim from previous ones, making it hard to determine whether genuinely new material would be introduced in any given chapter. Occasional errors (such as the typesetting of some accented characters) contributes to giving the book the feel of a printed blog. In the end, I largely skimmed through the book.
2. the book largely declaims truths, strengthening arguments by USE OF ALL CAPS, rather than trying to present nuance: the Narcissist has no self-reflective ability, is certain, etc. This makes it more difficult to apply to the more nuanced interactions that I have with narcissists.
3. the book is inconsistent. Quite apart from the cut-and-paste editing, the book inconsistently claims that Narcissists can't change in one chapter, going on to advise on how to attempt to change them in the next.
4. the scholarship is superficial. While Vaknin's list of references is more extensive than any I've yet read (and less hagiographic than Behary's), references are often simply dropped in rather than critically commented upon. The primarily exception may be the psychodynamic material, including essays on Freud and his successors. (Ironically, given the unambiguous tone and apparent reverence for Freud, the book is free of any of the careful observation that typified Freud's work.) Perhaps more oddly, Vaknin also presents his own diagnostic list of for narcissism as an alternative to that in the DSM.
Now the assessment on how the book perhaps accidentally sheds light on narcissism.
5. while not commented upon, inclusion at the end of Vaknin's biography seems quintessentially narcissistic. Furthermore, its contents seem to echo Vaknin's descriptions of narcissism: presumably "Graduated a few semesters in the Technion" means that he left without graduating.
6. reading FAQ #73, on narcissists in court, I had to wonder how autobiographic the description was. If so, I think that a much more informative account would have been written in the first person - something perhaps much harder for a narcissist. (Equally, the rambling FAQ #64, on how narcissists "communicate" by fending off, evading and perfecting "the ability to say nothing in lengthy Castro-like speeches".)
7. the book feels narcissistic and cultic, from the extensive endorsements (primarily from webizens) to the mention of the number of 5* reviews received at Barnes and Noble.
Ultimately, however, the book embodies its author's message: narcissism may be incurable, but it is treatable. This is, perhaps, its most powerful lesson.