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The Fine Line Between Success and Second-Best : COMPLETE AND UTTER FAILURE: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops by Neil Steinberg ; Doubleday $17.50, 258 pages

November 28, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The literature of failure, intuition tells us, is sketchy. Who wants to read about talented people who didn't make it big, worked hard and ended up with nothing? That's an idea we can't face; genius going unrewarded, dazzling single-mindedness leading nowhere.

There is, in fact, a vast literature of failure--indeed, one could plausibly argue that literature is failure, for the greatest figures in fiction are shot through with delusions, flaws and inadequacies that lead to tragic or near-tragic ends. Oedipus, Hamlet, Quixote, Faust, Ahab, Gatsby; their failures are much more interesting than any possible success, just as Satan in Paradise Lost is much more interesting than God.

Sure, everyone wants to be successful in his or her own life, but in others success often seems chimerical, artificial or simply dull, lacking the authenticity and gravity and depth of ordinary human failure.

In "Complete and Utter Failure," Chicago Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg has written an anthem for losers. "Second-placers and also-rans," he writes in the introduction, "were sometimes better, more interesting, even more worthy, than those whose combination of luck, effort and circumstance for some reason brought success."

True--but a fat lot of good it did the second- or third-best. Most people can identify Sir Edmund Hillary; who's heard of George Leigh Mallory or Andrew Irvine, whose bodies Hillary passed perhaps a thousand feet below Everest's summit? Or Tenzing Norgay, Hillary's Sherpa guide, who may well have been the first to stand on Everest but didn't have a uni-cultural publicity machine to trumpet his achievement?

"Complete and Utter Failure" is not the book you'd expect, namely a collection of short essays on people, products and ideas that have vanished from history after showing initial promise. That's both a blessing and a disappointment: a blessing because Steinberg doesn't usually indulge in Schadenfreude (joy in another's misfortune), and a disappointment because . . . well, because Steinberg doesn't usually indulge in Schadenfreude (everyone needs it, now and then).

This reader would happily read an encyclopedia-size book on some wonderfully misguided concepts, and I wouldn't even mind the inclusion of some startling successes--Kimberly-Clark's turning a post-World War I oversupply of cellulose medical dressings into two innovative products, Kleenex and Kotex.

Failed inventions, however, take up only one chapter in "Complete and Utter Failure"; Steinberg devotes more space to better-known historical failures, such as Robert Scott's belated arrival at the South Pole, Elisha Gray's misappropriated contribution to Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, boy-genius William James Sidis' failure to thrive in adulthood. Steinberg also describes, with some charm, his own failures: the journalistic assault on a skyscraper's radio tower cut short by late-breaking rationalization, the high school kiss aborted by the unexpected intrusion of little brother.

Steinberg turns these incidents into meditations on "pointless failure" and "bad timing," and although there's a certain molehills-into-mountains aspect to these personal confessions, they do illuminate the fact that failure is relative. Failure, after all, is often necessary to later success, and failure in one area is frequently linked to success in another.

By far the longest chapter in this book deals with Scripps-Howard's National Spelling Bee, which Steinberg characterizes as "institutionalized failure." That's something of an exaggeration, but essentially true, for the children who take part in the bee--all except one--are destined to go home feeling inferior (despite the sponsors' constant assertions that all participants are "winners").

They no doubt benefit from having endured so early the rigors of competition, on the one hand, but on the other, the bee proves surprisingly unedifying. The children never need to know the meanings of the words they spell; moreover, on the national level at least, they are asked to spell ridiculous words, chosen above all for their ability to create losers--such as thanatophidia and abiogenist (as Steinberg puts it, "words that get cut when dictionaries are abridged"). No wonder the "comfort room," to which bee-children are escorted after misspelling a word, contains an inflatable punching bag.

The $64,000 question--is "Complete and Utter Failure" a failure? No. What fails, in this instance, is that very question, because Steinberg makes clear the success/failure dichotomy is frequently trivial, in many cases little more than a matter of perspective. One doesn't anticipate that someone who went to Harvard at age 11, as did William Sidis, will go on to become an itinerant clerk, but if such unassuming employment made him happy, why should anyone care?

But it didn't make him happy, of course: Sidis was forever branded a failure in adulthood because of his early success, and was forced into itinerancy by people fascinated by his once-vaunted precocity. "All I want to do is run an adding machine," he told James Thurber of the New Yorker, who contributed to Sidis' misery by writing about him, "but they won't leave me alone." Ironic but true, and commonplace as well; Sidis' failure is a direct result, as Steinberg wryly notes, of his father's determination to make him a success.

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