We Have Met the Enemy: Self-control in an Age of Excess by Dan Akst

by |February 22, 2011

A witty and wide – ranging investigation of the central problem of our time: how to save ourselves from what we want.

Freedom is dangerous.  Half of all deaths in America, for instance, come from overeating, smoking, drinking too much, failing to exercise, and other deadly behaviours that we indulge in against our own better judgement.  Why are we on a campaign of slow-motion suicide?

While temptations have multiplied, like fast-food outlets in suburbia, crucial social constraints have eroded.  Tradition, family, church, and ideology have lost much of their capacity to circumscribe behaviour, while financial limits, once a ready substitute for thrift, were swept away by surging affluence and the remarkable open-handedness of lenders (a confluence that recently ended in tears).  The result is a world that puts more pressure that ever on the ‘self’ in self-control, sorely testing the limits of human willpower.

We Have Met the Enemy is a brilliant and irreverent search for answers that delves into overeating, overspending, procrastination, anger, addiction, wayward sexual attraction, and most of the other homely transgressions that bedevil us daily in a world of freedom, prosperity, and technological empowerment.

Using self-control as a lens rather than a cudgel, Akst draws a vivid picture of the many-sided problem of desire – and delivers a blueprint for how we can steer shrewdly toward the wants we most want for ourselves.

‘You wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from reading this book!  Daniel Akst is among the sharpest, most perceptive writers of this generation.’ – Gregg Easterbrook, author of Sonic Boom

We Have Met the Enemy is an investigation of how we manage (or fail to manage) desire, one in which I glide freely across disciplines as only a practiced dilettante can. Nobody likes a Puritan, John Dewey reminds us, and so I was careful to avoid penning some grimly censorious screed. On the contrary, by the time I was finished I was full of sympathy for those who, from Augustine to Eliot Spitzer, find themselves on the losing end of our never-ending battle with desire. On top of which, the history, psychology, economics and politics of self-control are a lot of fun, and that’s what I had with the book. I hope you will too. Daniel Akst.

Daniel Akst has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other publications. His previous books include Wonder Boy, which chronicled the wondrous financial fraud he had a hand in exposing, and the novels St Burl’s Obituary (a PEN/Faulkner finalist) and The Webster Chronicle. He lives with his wife and sons in New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley, generally a good place to hide from temptation.

From Michael Short in The Age: Too many people have become enslaved by their own appetite for excess, even if it’s killing them. Dan Akst says the answer is not more tofu, but more self-control. more….

Here is an essay Daniel wrote on the subject.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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