The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Lectures from The Institute of Failure

1) Pick it up. Put it down. Cross out the parts you don’t like. I kind of think that’s what the author wants you to do. His name is Matthew Goulish, and his main argument in this series of lectures is that rupture, transgression, and failure lead to innovation. In the author’s words, “To understand a system, study its failure.”

2) My own failures with respect to this book revolve around two axes. The first is my ignorance of some of the figures Goulish mentions throughout the text. Martin Heidegger, for example. I fancy myself a well-read individual, but I couldn’t name anything by Heidegger. So when I read about him, even oblique references to the man, I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Could I rectify the situation? Yes. Do I? No. The same could be said for my second failing: my inability to grasp even the most basic mathematical concepts. This failure impeded my understanding of a brief lecture titled “The Butterfly Catastrophe.”  Together these failures, according to the logic of this book, give me a unique perspective on Goulish’s argument. More accurately, I suppose, the unique dimension of my failures gives me a unique perspective on this point. It probably also says something about me an my character. I’m a kind of creature who’d like to think of myself as learned but who won’t take steps to address the gaps in my learning.

3) In addition to studying failure, Goulish also attempts to examine the meaning of a life. There’s a distinction to made her between the meaning of life and the meaning of a life. As in one life. As in someone’s life. As in What is the meaning of your life or my life or Goulish’s life. To investigate this problem, he looks at an early twentieth-century naturalist named W.N.P. Barbellion, among whose works is an essay titled “Curious Facts in the Geographical Distribution of British Newts.” It sounds funny, like a Monty Python sketch. And maybe Goulish’s lip was curling into a subtle smile as he gave this lecture. Maybe. Probably. I’m guessing it was. There’s something funny about all of this.

4) “Funny” in the academic sense of the word. Dry humor. Academic humor. I probably missed half of the jokes, and that’s being generous to myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if knowing more about Heidegger would have made this book a scream. I’d have laughed out loud, wiping tears from my eyes as I turned each page. Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, by the way. I only know this because Goulish mentions it.

5) The closest comparison I can make is to the writing of Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida. Dropping these names is as much a ploy to make up for not knowing anything about Heidegger as it is to give you a sense of what this book is like. What I mean to say is the he writes like a philosopher. A French philosopher.

6) The Institute of Failure is real.

7) For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.


Three years ago (almost to the day, give or take a week or so), I started this blog immediately after putting down Curtis Smith‘s collection of short stories, The Species Crown. The collection was so good — so thoroughly enjoyable and moving — that it turned me not only into a fan of Smith’s work, but a fan of the small press movement in general. Since then, various small presses have put out two novels by Smith (Sound + Noise and Truth or Something Like It, both from Casperian Press), another short story collection (Bad Monkey from Press 53), and now Witness, a collection of essays from Sunny Outside. The phrase hardest working man in bookbiz comes to mind.

Witness finds Smith exploring many of the themes that make his fiction both so endearing and so real. It turns out that Smith — like many of his characters — is a dedicated family man and educator. His essays touch on work, fatherhood, tattoos, art, literature, music, life, death, and everything in between. Through it all, Smith proves his talent for finding epiphanies in the quotidian details of daily life: the promise of adventure inherent in the smile of his young son’s toy giraffe, the squandered potential of an errant student as signified by the empty chair where he used to sit, intimations of mortality in the warm sanctuary of an ATM kiosk on a wintry day.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Smith is both an educator and an author that makes his writing so good. In a piece titled “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” he notes that although he’s far from perfect as an educator, it’s his imperfections that compel him to keep working at his craft: “Twenty-five years, and I still make mistakes, failing to decipher the hints laid before me. Despite my daily stumbles, I don’t divert my eyes, knowing a signal may wait in the next furrowed eyebrow or curled lip.” What becomes clear throughout the collection is that Smith’s constant attention to detail applies to reading not just his students but the world at large.

A moving and insightful collection, Witness does a wonderful job of shedding light on the miracles that occur daily in our imperfect world.