Review of Olga Khazan’s Weird

Olga Khazan is Weird (Hachette, 2020), uncomfortably weird, and sometimes lonely. So, she wrote a journalistic self-help book about making peace with her unique self and finding her people. Khazan immigrated with her family from Russia to Texas when she was a child. She never adjusted to life as a Texan, or at least to identifying as a Texan.

Part vulnerable memoir. However, there are no gossipy tidbits about the vagaries of youth and the cruelty of children. She doesn’t wear her isolated existence as a badge. She turned out to be well-adjusted, if neurotic, and likable. She seeks self-acceptance, if not other-acceptance. This quick read is the culmination of years of interviews and chisel work (as fellow Texan Brene Brown puts it) by the author.

Part review of psychology 101. Khazan comments on her subjects’ stories with psychological concepts. These comments provide labels for real-life experiences, and so normalizes the sometimes painful transformation from lonely youthful outcast to relatively well-adjusted adult.

Mostly character sketches. We meet many people who are/were weird for various reasons. Some of the people we meet are different physically, others culturally, and some socially. Then we learn what they did with their weird. We get inspirational and uplifting stories of overcoming–or at least coming to terms with–adversity.

The book is arranged in quarters. “Part One: Being Weird” validates the hurt of non-conformity. “Part Two: The Weird Advantage” reviews how non-conformity is a strength. “Part Three: How To Be Different” provides strategies outsiders can use to accept and even profit from being outsiders. “Part Four: To Stay Different, Or To Find Your Own Kind?” presents three choices outsiders must confront on their way to self-actualization.

Weird is modern self-help journalism, designed to ease the discontent soul. Khazan’s message is classic American self-help: you can control your world and how you fit into it.

The contemporary self-help book is research-based and concrete, offering science in place of spiritualism (Kara Cutruzzula, 2016 ). Not everyone is a fan. For a take-down of this genre, check out Boris Kachka’s 2013 review in the New York Magazine.

The journalistic self-help guide genre is one of my favorites. I like to read and study the Western religion of self-determination. The idea that one can practice being a better version of themselves comforts their discontent. I’m in that club.

I found her book a pleasant, if lite, addition to the genre. My tastes turn to deeper studies of the psychology and the history in self-help. Perhaps that is because these books fit tightly to my personal and professional interests. In some ways, her story has a familiar flavor. Moving to a strange place at an early age and never fitting in with one’s peers is a formative experience. I can relate to the Khazan’s endless search for place and peers.

While Khazan talked to people with visible differences, she did not profile people with invisible differences. There was not, to my memory, anyone with a neuro-atypical brain. With one or two exceptions, all of the people profiled could pass, that is, they could find their way in “normie” society, if uncomfortably.

Weird is one journalist’s walk through the psychology of being different. To her credit, this was not a book about deficits, but a book about strengths. And choice. The final chapters leave the reader to decide for themselves how they want to share their weirdness with the world.

An editing note: there are many distracting cut-and-paste errors in the text that can probably be blamed on a rush to print. But, if there is time to use tracked changes, there is time to spell-check. 

My favorite e.e. cummings quote fits this book well.

Weird is an easy read. Accessible and not particularly emotionally or intellectually challenging. The tone is light and conversational. There is plenty of trendy language with popular culture touchstones. As pop culture is a turn-off, personally, sounding trendy makes me wonder if the examples will have life over time.

In the end, Weird was enjoyable, even if it wasn’t the book I expected. I expected psychology illustrated by stories–something that I recommend over time. Instead, I got inspirational stories with some psychological explanations.   Weird is a book for anyone who is struggling to fit in, and questioning if they should. I have already recommended it to several acquaintances.

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