Dearest Class of 2019 — already, you’ve had the privilege of participating in one of the University’s youngest-lived traditions. And we’re not talking about bickering Campus Club ironically. You see, two years ago, Christopher Eisgruber ’83 suggested that the entire freshman class read a book of the administration’s choosing. Basically, it’s Eisgruber’s attempt at Oprah’s Book Club, in the vain hope of elevating the sales of would-be esoteric works to New York Times platinum status. Mercifully, Eisgruber has yet to select a constitutional law dictionary for the Pre-Read (something tells me it wouldn’t sell all that well.)
In its inaugural year, Eisgruber selected Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” (no subliminal messaging here), and in the second year, dear Chris selected Susan Wolf’s “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters” (trust us, Princeton students could use some self-help.) And in the Pre-Read’s third year, Eisgruber picked from the back rack of the academic bookstore a slim volume called “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele.
As an Outdoor Action leader, I was also assigned this book as summer reading, wedging it between my time reading “Great Expectations” and “The Martian.” I like reading books people give me for free — but when you’re a writing tutor and an editor, it doesn’t take much for critical, editing impulses to take over. The following is my measured, frustrated take on “Whistling Vivaldi.”
You can’t judge a book by its title, but “Whistling Vivaldi” sounds like the title of a poem read by an English teacher at your kindergarten graduation, or alternatively, the name of an indie rock band from Providence, R.I.
As for its cover, it’s like the graphic designer ripped off the polychrome circles on the cover of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” — but using the aesthetic of iOS 8. It manages to be minimalist, busy and as disappointing as the Apple Watch’s sales — all at the same time.
But let’s get to content. “Whistling Vivaldi” documents some truly groundbreaking research in social psychology that revolutionizes the understanding of stereotypes, racism and group dynamics. Its findings are eye-opening and offers intuitive explanations for some vexing questions that are supremely relevant to Princeton’s privileged campus.
That is to say, “Whistling Vivaldi” would probably make one of the greatest Atlantic or New Republic articles of all time, but instead is one of the worst books of all time. This is ironic because if you’re A.B., you’re going to be reading a lot of bad articles and good books. Eisgruber is preparing you for the challenges of reading the poorly written works of academia, because you can definitely win the Nobel Prize without a working knowledge of sentences. And by striving to be in the same genre as pop psychology as sociology New Yorker wunderkind Malcolm Gladwell, Steele’s work is like watery box wine to Gladwell’s Argentine Malbec, with a hint of hickory and a sprinkle of quirkiness. Malcolm Gladwell is still alive, but if he was dead, he’d be doing triple-axels in his tomb.
“Whistling Vivaldi” follows a predictable format that kept me turning the same page, back and forth, not getting anywhere. First, Steele invokes an engaging hook, say about the remarkable former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, followed by an experimental design involving a test group of guinea pig students at Steele’s university-at-the-time. These students are forced time and again to take awful standardized tests for no apparent reason, the only difference being the phrasing of the instructions at the very beginning — such masochism! This is followed by the astounding announcement that without any caveats, Steele’s hypothesis was completely correct, which really saps the narrative tension of the work. Will Macbeth retain the throne? Will Harry Potter defeat Voldemort? What are the technical advantages of a lightsaber with a hilt? Doesn’t matter, because Dr. Steele is always correct. Except for that one time when the statistical test wasn’t significant, but after changing a single parameter, Steele was right!
By the end of “Vivaldi,” we are exhausted by its repetitive structure. We are tired of its iOS 8 cover, its strange title and its ambition to be featured in the list of products on the bottom of the Amazon page for Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.” By striving to be so much at once, “Vivaldi” suffers from its own type of stereotype threat. It psychs itself out. It never reaches its full potential afforded by its research and its genre. For this meta-dedication to its subject, I think “Whistling Vivaldi” deserves more respect. Dr. Steele, you fooled us all — this was your plan the whole time.
Besides, it’s only a matter of time before the New Republic article about how the carefully curated study of Princeton freshmen reading “Whistling Vivaldi” affected their performance on a selected portion of the GRE to be given during the administration of the meningitis B vaccine. The phrasing of instructions was variable.