Ken Lytle and Katie Corcoran Lytle, The Little Book of BIG F*#K Ups: 220 of History’s Most Regrettable Moments (Adams, 2011), 220 pp. ISBN: 10: 1-4405-1252-3
After an exhausting 10 1/2 hour flight from São Paulo I arrived in Toronto this morning at 5:40. With miles (and one more flight) still to go before I sleep, I decided to purchase a light read to while away the remaining hours. With a limited selection at the airport bookshop I settled upon Ken Lytle and Katie Corcoran Lytle’s The Little Book of BIG F*#K Ups.
The book is one of the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of what I call “IFII” books (for irreverent, funny, informative introductions). Some IFII focus on science, others on literature, religion, philosophy, or in this case, historical trivia. The Dummies books seem to have kicked off this trend a couple decades ago, Complete Idiots’ Guides took things up a notch, and now we have books that drop the “F” bomb in the title (albeit with the obligatory * and # standing in for the u and c). Is this too irreverent? Perhaps, but I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and thought I might at least find this book minimally engaging and informative.
I guess if the threshold really was minimal the book just managed to clear the bar. But it didn’t do much better than that. It got some of the facts wrong (who cares? it’s just inane trivia, right?). The tone is also tiring however. There is only so many times that I can read of major historical figures being referred to as “dumb asses” before I think this is just lame. Eventually the whole irreverent exercise begins to feel forced rather like Spongbob Squarepants trying to act tough.
But alas, this book left me not only weary and irritated. I also found it at points deeply offensive. Consider first that the playful irreverence of the Dummies books (and their ilk) is gone, replaced by a nastiness. The authors set the tone for their entries in the introduction when they write:
“Let’s just call a spade a spade and agree that when people f*#k up on a large, game-changing scale, we should mock them. Relentlessly. For centuries on end.” (XIII)
What? Relentlessly mock people? Does it sound like these two wannabes are trying a bit too hard to be irreverent?
Remember that nasty tone as we consider one of the entries, tactlessly titled “Love that Dirty Water”. The entry targets the millions of people in Bangladesh who live on or near the flood plain. The entry observes that in 1998 one thousand people died in flooding in Bangladesh while thirty million were left homeless. The entry concludes with a quip of staggering insensitivity:
“So go ahead, Bangladesh. Cut down trees. Build more homes. Who cares about the environment anyway? But if you’re not going to take Mother Nature into consideration, seriously, get a houseboat.” (191)
“Seriously?!” “Get a houseboat“? With what? The bloody dollar a day that many of those people earn making the clothes that the Lytles buy at Walmart with their royalty checks?
Would the Lytles say the same thing about all those foolish residents of New Orleans who should have known better than build homes in an area vulnerable to hurricanes? Should we mock the morons in Oklahoma or Kansas every time they lose their houses (or lives) in a tornado? After all, they chose to live in Tornado Alley. So what do they expect? I suppose we should also mock relentlessly for centuries on end all those in California who have lost properties (or lives) when the earth shifted. I mean, what kind of fools would live near a fault line?
I am going to be charitable and assume that the Lytles would be decent enough not to say such ignorant things about people living in their own backyard. So what leads them to smear the desperately poor nation of Bangladesh and its millions of residents who eke out the most meager of livings? Do they not like brown people? Or do they have a problem with the poor? What motivates such vitriol?
Alas, the downward trend in IFII books is but another sign of the decline of civility in western society. But this review isn’t about western society. It’s about the fifteen bucks I spent in Toronto. And as I turned the final page I had a minor revelation: my candidate for the 221st most regrettable moment is the publication of this mean-spirited little book.