Book Review: Gumption by Nick Offerman
“I can certainly refuel my own well of gumption with the example he set.” – Nick Offerman on Theodore Roosevelt, Gumption
This past week the wife and kids were out of town, so I had the rare opportunity to essentially do whatever I wanted with my free-time, outside of work and the usual around-the-house chores. Mostly this involved me going to a coffee shop and working on my own book — finished another chapter — but it also allowed me to take in Nick Offerman’s new book in the form of a deluge whereas I would normally consume my reading in bits and bites as time affords. I went with the Audible version as per usual, especially when the author is reading the material, and so filled my empty house with the soothing resonance of Offerman’s manly diction.
Note for Audible listeners – I found the default listening speed a little slow so I kicked it up to 1.25. I also found that if you notch it down to .75, Offerman sounds drunk, which is really funny. At .5 he sounds like he may have had a stroke, so, not quite as funny.
I was somewhat reluctant to read Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, because, while a fond supporter of Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman’s first book, Paddle Your Own Canoe (review here) left me wanting and disappointed. Wanting in the case of humor and actual life lessons — though I suppose if I count the lesson to not be a Christian or a Conservative, unless it leads to sex, then it would have been a good read — and disappointed by the overall message to which many men would undoubtedly take to heart: if you’re a lucky bastard, a life of teenage sex, booze, and drugs, along with a helping of old-fashioned values to keep one from going too far off course, is the life you should choose. At the same time, I enjoyed the libertarian undertones I could hear on occasion, and began to see Offerman as just a dude with some well-worded and colorfully stated opinions, which helped separate him, in my mind, from Ron Swanson. His passion for woodworking is inspiring, seconded only to his admiration and adulation for his wife Megan. It also endeared me towards him in a way that I can assure you is totally manly…totally.
Anyways, here are some thoughts on his latest book.
To Nick Offerman – Dear Mr. Sir. Should you be reading this, I want to say at the outset, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, in your own way, with the rest of us. My disagreements with you on some of the areas you cover — important things as they may be –, pale in comparison to the joy I have listening to you and conversing with myself and my family over the points you make. I appreciate that you are asking questions and digging in to better understand the men and women who have made an impact on your life. Oh, how many are the men who simply allow themselves to be carried out by the tides of years. (You see I made an occasion to use ‘Oh’ there.) Thankfully you aren’t to be counted among them. Perhaps some day we can meet and have a chinwag about these things. I sure would like to hear more about your time with Mr. Berry. – Mike Yarbrough
The goal of Offerman’s new book is to share some of the thoughts and lives of those Americans who have had plenty of pluck, hardiness, and determination (in other words, Gumption) in a number of genres so as to inspire future American Gumptioniers and for the general betterment of mankind. This is an admirable and manly goal, especially in a time and society that promotes the unscrupulous and dissolute. I don’t feel that Offerman does this satisfactorily, as it seems 1/2 – 3/4 of the book is devoted to gushing over people he thinks are cool, rather than having a strong tie back into the Gumption theme. He starts off with George Washington — respect — and moves on to other notable figures of history (Franklin, Madison, Frederick Douglass, and Theodore Roosevelt) — looking good so far — but compared to these monumental figures who truly changed history with their gumptitude and furthermore were men of such phenomenal all-around character, folks like Barney Frank, Yoko Ono, and Jeff Tweedy are tough sells in the gumption department. Interesting? Talented? Hardworking? Successful? Sure.
However, Offerman owns up to this, albeit a little late, and says as much:
“I need to come clean here. I’m afraid I must level with you. A big part of my attraction to this project, if it’s not already perfectly obvious, has been my selfish desire to meet some of my heroes.”
OK, cool. After all, it is his book and perhaps gumption is in the eye of the beholder. Plus honesty is a good characteristic to have and at least Mr. Offerman had the decency to level with us.
Offerman’s Writing\Speaking Style
One of the draws to Offerman’s writing is his contrasting bookish vocabulary and locker-room jargon, which he uses in the same sentence and phrasings to a humorous effect. It is as if he is playing two parts, not allowing himself to move fully into one character or the other. When things get too serious, he brings in some humor, but not just humor, he brings the level of intelligence down several notches, purposefully (I think). He’ll have an elegant parade of thoughts, yet finish them off with something you would expect to hear from a bunch of teenage boys, smoking and talking unawares, behind the dumpster at a gas station. A lot of writers and speakers do this; it catches people off guard and is a sign of understanding your audience. I do think it can be done too much and I’m not a fan of cursing for the sake of cursing. I prefer to save a few words for when I really need them.
Not to get too psychoanalytical here, but I wonder if he is expressing something along the lines of, “Hey, ummm, I know I’m supposed to be an adult and professional here and I have some things I want to share, but really, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” In other words, it may just be part of his humor, but looking back on men I have known over the years, as well as myself, the “not wanting to be taken too seriously” is often used as an out. That uncomfortable feeling of leaving a thought or conversation on a more serious note might be a sign of insecurity. Whether this applies to Mr. Offerman or not, I don’t know. I just know it is something I keep an eye on for myself.
Things that Stood Out to Me
When listening to this book, I found myself thinking about Nick Offerman as much as any of the people he was actually writing\speaking about. While the stories of some of the gumptionated Americans is well done and insightful – there were a few I had not heard of and his brief overview of their life did a good job of acquainting me with them – it was his conversations with them and thoughts on himself in their presence that have stuck with me.
This Book is Funny!
Offerman does a really good job of keeping the jocosity flowing while talking up some of his favorite people and tackling issues such as the lack of human decency, corporate greed, and McDonald’s (read it to find out). Jokes about Free Masons (Not that Free Masonry should be joked with. I mean, personally I didn’t agree with his jokes. We’re cool, right guys?) as well as his beloved Chicago Cubs, run throughout the book. It’s my kind of humor because, well it’s just funny (except the Free Mason stuff…definitely not funny) and it brings continuity to the book as a whole. By the end you feel like you share some inside jokes.
Yes. Just, friggin, yes. If you are not a Wendell Berry fan…I really just don’t know what to say. His writing is amazing and Offerman does an excellent job sharing his passion for this man. Whether or not Mr. Berry fits in the gumption category, he certainly fits in the “when writing a book and you have a chance to meet him, do so” category. What really impressed me, in both this chapter, but really throughout the book, was Offerman’s humility and amenable nature when in the company of others he admires. For instance, when asking for input or thoughts (I can’t remember the exact scenario) for his Gumption book, Mr. Berry asks to read Nick’s first book, Paddle Your Own Canoe. Mr. Offerman mentions being concerned about offending a hero of his with his off-color humor and anti-religious views, which were expressed pretty tenaciously in his first tome. I got the feeling that Offerman was a little embarrassed by his first work and the way he came across. We never want to be a disappointment to the people we love. It’s one of the laws that pushes us to be better men. If we love men (and women) who are good, we then have higher standards to measure up to. Our unwillingness to disappoint them is our motivation to grow.
The Theme of Religion
“The world grows ever smaller, but I can’t help suspect there is some magic at play as well.” – Nick Offerman, Gumption
Offerman grew up in a Catholic setting and was even an altar boy, though if you have known any Catholics, that can be more of an introduction into the liturgical rather than the saintly. As already mentioned, he has a pretty severe disdain for the hypocritical Christian — word — as well as Creationists. Those anti-religious-establishment\sheeple themes come up in this book as well, but in a much more natural and seeking way. I say seeking because, he is in the mode of asking questions and finding things out. He even mentions in his chapter with Jeff Tweedy, that the conversation with those he is interviewing always turns to religion and, in the chapter on Tom Laughlin, he practically recites the Gospel message itself.
Of course the conversation turns to religion when we sit down and begin asking the tough questions in life: What makes people act like dicks? What are the chances that [meet my wife\survive that wreck\get this job\etc.] would happen? How have I made it this far? What does it mean to be good and why should I care? That’s what I really like about this book. The insight into the conversations that Christians wish they could have with non-Christians, but often times can’t without feeling like we are always “selling it”. The candid conversations about how Christians are viewed and what people think this world needs. There is more I could add here but I’m already going long.
White Male Guilt and Anti-American Exceptionalism
Offerman makes numerous mentions of how us “white dudes” took advantage of women and other races at nearly every point in history. For example, he mentions that the Japanese round-up in WWII was a knee-jerk reaction by a bunch of scared white people. In the same section of the book he calls America a bully and says the only reason we were respected around the world was because we made other nations afraid of us. On one hand he calls America the greatest nation on the planet yet derides her as a power-seeking, oil-grabbing, Manifest Destiny bully. I understand that we have made some bad calls as a nation, so I have no problems calling us out on that. However, let me set the record straight on the issue white male guilt and American hooliganism.
History and current events seem to indicate that white dudes seem to have a number of the same issues as do people of various other cultures and skin colors. Essentially, humans can be pretty terrible to one another, regardless of pigmentation. Singling out white folks (or any other race) is actually more akin to racist or prejudiced thought that one might realize. It supposes that “white people” ought to have known better than to treat people so poorly. White people should have known that women and blacks and Indians were people too. Why? Because of their lack of melanin? The argument just doesn’t hold up. Really, it should be no surprise that people act the way we do. Planting guilt on one particular race for a particular point in time is very selective and doesn’t represent the fouled unity we share in our humanity.
America the Bully
Offerman compares WWII to children on the playground, throwing punches and everyone getting their licks in, until America decides to nuke the other children, thus not playing fairly and earning the title of bully. Let us look at our history. In both WWI and WWII, America stayed out of the conflict until we had no other choice. For decades prior to the Japanese bombing us in Pearl Harbor, America had watched the growing brutality and imperialism of Japan. The Rape of Nanking for example, so called because some 20,000 Chinese women (including infants and the elderly) were raped by Japanese soldiers. Instead of condemning America for rounding them up, we should be amazed that we allowed them into our country at all. Just as with the Nazis, not all Germans were evil, not all Japanese were either. History has well recorded the opportunities we gave to their nation’s leaders to surrender. We did what needed to be done.
We also helped rebuild both nations after the end of the war. And, while there was certainly racial tension for some time, it was short-lived. America has stuck her nose into places it doesn’t belong, no doubt, but our handling of most conflicts has been an absolute example to the world of forgiveness and mercy.
The first impression I took from Gumption is that Nick Offerman has grown up some, at least in comparison to his last book. I like that Nick is asking the questions and having the conversations with a broad view of things. He tackles everything from the Founding Fathers to Conan O’Brien and gleans wisdom from them all. This book is a good chance to see how differing world-views affect our perception of right and wrong and what we might call wise or foolish. Nick seems to have a pretty narrow view of Christianity, in that he continues to preach against Christendom as if all are sheep and led by televangelist, when in truth, most Christians are aware of the issues within the Church, yet are also unaware as how to fix them without rebooting the whole system.
Offerman’s thoughts on the shocking and odious state of our food industry and our propensity to continue eating at the table set before us, should be required teaching to every student in the country. Contrary to his Ron Swanson character, Offerman is on the right side of things here. The chapter on Michael Pollan is excellent but his thoughts on this subject, like many others, show up in unexpected places throughout the book.
He views disagreements with homosexuality as being hateful and doesn’t leave room for disagreement based on principles or differing logical conclusions. However, there is a growing strain of humility expressed in Gumption that wasn’t present in Paddle Your Own Canoe.
Did you read it?
If you read the book I would love to get your feedback! Respond in the comments below.