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Sep 022011

Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power reads, at first glance, like a self-help book for sociopaths.

The preface compares today’s office-bound world to the aristocratic court, and posits that nothing has changed. Sure, we smell a little better, and a few lucky stiffs have access to unions and whatnot, but in the grand scheme of things, everybody’s waiting to crush you and discredit you and pick their teeth with your bones, so beware! What do you really know about Tina in accounting?

In the end, there’s only the game, and the game ain’t changed. So prepare yourself while Greene takes you through 48 different rules describing how one should play at backstabbing and skulduggery. Master this content, and you’ll finally be able to put that damn Tina in her place.

If it sounds like I’m skeptical, be warned, dear reader, that it may be because I’ve internalized the rules to a level you can’t even fathom. Since, after all, “all of us hunger for power, and almost all of our actions are aimed at gaining it”, skeptics and game-decriers such as myself are really only playing it harder and lulling you into complacency. Greene’s covered his bases.

So, as a self-help book, this is more or less the tangled mess you’ve come to expect from its ilk (y’know, Sun Tzu for the Hedge Fund Manager and all that silliness). That’s not to say there aren’t pieces of good life advice hidden in this book, mind. Whether they got there by accident or design is anybody’s guess, but avoiding negative people isn’t a terrible idea, and ‘do not offend the wrong person’ is, self-evidently, a decent rule to live by. But mostly, rules contradict each other, and the majority have some form of disclaimer clause – a ‘Reversal’, in the parlance of our book – explaining that in fact, in some situations, one should do the exact opposite of what we’ve spent the last chapter on. You should suck up to your boss unless you shouldn’t, young grasshopper. Pay me.

By now, I’m sure it sounds as though I have a low opinion of this book. Actually, I loved it. Every chapter is teeming with historical anecdotes demonstrating that rule’s theme, from Mata Hari to Galileo to the Borgias to Cao Cao. In between stories about Louis’s court (pick a Louis, any Louis), and what worked and what didn’t for its intrepid (or disgraced) courtiers, there are folk tales, sayings and quotations. To Greene’s credit, this content spans the globe and time. At one moment, we may be reading about the Japanese tea ceremony; turn the page, and here’s PT Barnum. It’s genuinely interesting stuff, well researched, and a fun read.

A word, though, about the Kindle version: it’s terrible. Typos are all over the place, and while that’s something I’m normally not too fussed about, many of them interfere with comprehension. “The Resiling Master”, for instance, is a story about wrestling, which… well, at least that sort of makes sense if you sound it out. Not so for gems like “\OOAND”, and the cryptic “{III 1.\I,il .II ,1″/(F” (It’s about a cobbler, obviously). The good news, such as it is, is that these errors tend to pop up in headers rather than text, leading me to believe Penguin just scanned in a weird typeface and called it a day rather than, y’know, checking to see if the scan transferred to text properly. For all I know, these flaws don’t exist in the print version, but they were all over the one I read.

In closing:

I choose not to think of this as a self-help book; rather, it’s a book of historical curiosities that happens to use a self-help framing conceit. And, for all the silliness in the preface, and all the astounding typographical errors, it really is very good. My initial instinct was to dock a whole lot of precious, precious stars for the terrible state of the Kindle version, but whenever insane headings or amateur skulduggery got me too down on the content, I read it in the voice of Dwight Schrute, and all was well with the world.

Fact: This is a really good read.

4 Sun Kings out of 5.


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