Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/ Sarah Critchton, 2012)

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Morbid curiosity, morose delectation, schadenfreude. As conventional wisdom has it, these are the symptoms of our dark side; we succumb to them at our own peril. And yet we are compelled to look whenever we pass a grisly accident on the highway, and there’s no slaking our thirst for gory entertainments like horror movies and police procedurals. What makes these spectacles so irresistible?

In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, Eric G. Wilson sets out to discover the source of our attraction to the caustic, drawing on the findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and artists. A professor of English literature and a lifelong student of the macabre, Wilson believes there’s something nourishing in darkness. “To repress death is to lose the feeling of life,” he writes. “A closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies.”


His examples are legion and startling in their diversity. Citing everything from elephant graveyards and Susan Sontag’s On Photography to the Tiger Woods sex scandal and Steel Magnolias, Wilson finds heartening truths wherever he confronts death. In Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, the perverse is never far from the sublime. The result is a powerful and delightfully provocative defense of what it means to be human—for better and for worse.

Reviews:

“A hybrid of memoir, journalism and theory, Wilson's book investigates what this impulse tells us about ourselves and how it might inspire constructive reactions like compassion. . . . Invoking everything from horror movies and television news footage of the Sept. 11 attacks to Dante's tormented verse and Goya's paintings of cannibals, Wilson makes a strong case that humans are natural-born rubberneckers. . . . Equally well versed in pop culture and classic texts, Wilson builds his strongest arguments around notable works of art, explaining the darker impulses that inspired them. . . . .[Though] Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck necessarily deals with a host of grim subjects, . . . . there are also instances of unqualified beauty.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune

 

"Eric G. Wilson's smart, probing new book Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away sets out to explain what lies beneath our collective fascination with death and suffering. And if the ubiquity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise is any indication, boy, are we fascinated. . . . the book's slim, peripatetic chapters cover an awful lot of erudite territory, as Wilson draws ideas and research from a delightful grab bag of academics, artists and thinkers . . . . There are also great stories. Wilson attends a live re-enactment of the Passion and explores the market for serial killer "murderabilia." He gets lost on a Gettysburg battlefield and is reprimanded by a "brusque" Joyce Carol Oates. He wastes a day on YouTube watching teens knock each other silly in suburban fight club videos. He sips wine from a coffee mug among "a life size figure of Fidel Castro, made of wax; a document signed by Ted Bundy; a large likeness of Charles Manson, with a bloody knife in his hand," and — wait for it — "the skeleton of a baby" at Joe Coleman's "Odditorium" in Brooklyn. Amid all this, the author manages to fold in one of the most wonderfully concise summaries of the Greek pantheon I've ever read." NPR Books

 

“Mixing anecdotes, arguments and his own, quirky persona, the author of Against Happiness delivers a provocative meditation on morbid curiosity and the pleasure of seeing others suffer.” New Orleans Times-Picayune

 

“Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away is a concise, personal and essayistic exploration of humanity’s fascination with dark subjects (everything from horror movies, to tourism sites that commemorate tragedies, to serial killer memorabilia). It’s a trenchant combination of cultural criticism, philosophy, psychology, and personal narrative.” Washington Independent Review of Books

 

"[R]uminations of an exceptionally intelligent academic on why people — himself among the guilty parties — seem to search out and enjoy instances of human pain and suffering. . . .he does a thorough job of examining the people who can’t look away."  Roanoke Times

 

“[O]ddly charming. . . . [T]he book reassures: enjoying grotesque, horrible, frightening images is a natural impulse. From fairy tales to crime dramas, they hit us where we are most human.” Boston Globe

 

"Wilson explores [his theme] with zeal and a great deal of wit. It's hard, as one reads this fascinating book, not to see quite a bit of ourselves." Booklist

 

“[Wilson] is fluent and comfortable, whether he is poking for clues in the bewildering complexity of Edmund Burke's sublime, as experienced in the stomach-dropping irresistibility of, say, a tornado; the Jungian shadow, that archive of everything we hate about ourselves, those destructive crazes and unadmitted tendencies without recognition of which we would not be whole; or the simple, malicious pleasure of another's misfortunes. . . . [Wilson writes] our fascinations with catastrophe can best be seen as "as a special invitation to think about life's meanings," where we can not only entertain our destructive impulses without hurting ourselves -- keeping that special distance; the closer, the better, though not too close -- but also be reminded that life is a swift and chancy wonder, inspiring our progress through it to be appreciative and honest. Which doesn't mean that we can't enjoy scandals, failures, falls from grace, or just a fall down the stairs -- mockery, derision, ignominy, heap it on -- but that calamities of all sizes can ignite a passion for life in the observer, above that immediate sympathy for the Devil.” Barnes and Noble Review

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