Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Four-hour Chef: review

Timothy Ferriss finds ways to do things. He's a risk-taker, a challenge-facer, a success-meister, and I think he wants to pass himself off as a life-guru. His book The Four-hour Work Week put him on the map, his charmingly misleading title attracting over a million readers and catapulting him to media stardom. I've watched some of Tim's talks and interviews on YouTube; he comes off as friendly, open, and knowledgeable but also extremely driven—and there, I think, lies the fundamental disconnect between who Ferriss is and what he's trying to sell the public.

Like a lot of success gurus and so-called "life coaches," Ferris, with his insane energy and drive, is very much outside the norm, but he wants us to think that his ways of doing things, if we but imitate them, will lead us lowly normals to similar levels of personal success and fulfillment. As much as I love and respect religious traditions and practices, I'm skeptical of gurus, and doubly skeptical of people who think they can boil life down to a few simple formulae and peddle those formulae to us as some sort of existential cure. As with many how-to-succeed books, Ferriss' tomes basically allow him to get richer while we curious folks, most of us far less driven and much farther down on the IQ totem pole, sniff curiously at what Ferriss is selling before shrugging and moving on to the next guru to sucker us in.

Not that I think Ferriss is actively malicious, but I do think he is, at the very least, misguided. His books follow the exact same trajectory as that of the self-help manuals written by all his spiritual predecessors: "You too can succeed... if you just do XYZ in our program!"

Knowing nothing about Tim Ferriss at the time, I saw the The Four-hour Chef (hereinafter 4HC) on Amazon and was mildly curious, so I stuck it on my Amazon Wish List. My buddy Mike bought the book for me as a gift, so of course I read it all the way through. 4HC takes the reader on a culinary journey; it assumes you have zero competence in the kitchen but are willing to learn, and Ferriss emphasizes that the point of 4HC isn't actually the cooking, but the ways in which to learn new things. For Ferriss, this is key: learning how to learn.

Ferriss is a good, engaging writer when he wants to be; my inner proofreader, never far from the surface, sounded no alarms as I combed through this Princetonian's prose. His language is as lively and energetic as he is; he has obviously carefully honed his writing to snag the fat part of the readership bell curve. (This is another thing to know about Ferriss: every move he makes is somehow calculated—a point he readily admits during his public talks, but which doesn't exactly endear him to me.)

That said, the book's structure is all over the place, manically zigzagging from kitchen advice to anecdotes about hunting or kickboxing or learning Japanese. I got the impression, while reading this happy mess, that in Ferriss's mind this all made sense—it would all eventually gel for the reader. At the end of 4HC, Ferris did try to sum up what he'd been trying to do throughout the book, but I don't think he succeeded. Reading 4HC was a bit like following Robin William's segue-rich comic stylings: you never end up where you thought you'd be going. I admit I might have had a different feel for the book had I obtained the hard-copy version. Cell-phone-based Kindle apps make your voyage through prose ruthlessly linear; the cell phone's tiny screen acts as a spotlight that narrowly focuses your attention on one tiny snatch of text at a time. The effect, in this case, was to magnify the desultory nature of 4HC's structure, and I can't call that a virtue.

Ferriss, knowledgeable fellow that he is, offers us plenty of interesting sound bites (prose bites?)—trivia about human biology, French cooking techniques, and the weirder precincts of the Japanese language. The problem, alas, is that, while I was reading 4HC, these informational morsels came at me so fast and furiously that, by the end of the book, I couldn't remember anything. (That's not Ferriss' fault; in fact, part of Ferriss's spiel is about developing good mental habits, so it's my fault for not dutifully and mindfully taking notes—something that is possible to do on a Kindle. In fact, I took notes quite often while reading through the A Song of Ice and Fire saga the first time.)

Ultimately, reading Ferriss's book began to feel more like a chore than an adventure. There's a moralizing undercurrent to everything he says, as well as a pervasive feeling that he's trying to sell something. Should we trust those super-driven folks among us who rise above the hoi polloi and declare, "I have the answers"? I'm not sure we should. And let me say this: 4HC took a hell of a lot longer than four hours to read.


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