Evan R. Goldstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
What are you working on?” is academe's standard conversation starter, and for the past five years Geoffrey Nunberg has had a nonstandard response: “a book on assholes.”
“You get giggles,” says the linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, “or you get, 'You must have a lot of time on your hands'—the idea being that a word that vulgar and simple can't possibly be worth writing about.” Scholars have tended to regard the book as a jeu d'esprit, not a serious undertaking. Their reaction intrigued Nunberg: “When people say a word is beneath consideration, it's a sign that there's a lot going on.”
Aaron James can relate. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Assholes: A Theory (Doubleday), which was published in late October, a few months after Nunberg's book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (PublicAffairs). James took up the project with some trepidation. “I felt a real sense of risk about writing something that might not appeal to my intellectual friends.”
Risky? Perhaps, but not without precedent. The Stanford business professor Robert I. Sutton had a best seller in 2007 with The No Asshole Rule. And the nonscholarly asshole canon is vast. Recent titles include A Is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABCs of Conflict Resolution, Assholes Finish First, Assholeology: The Science Behind Getting Your Way—and Getting Away With It, and Dear Asshole: 101 Tear-Out Letters to the Morons Who Muck Up Your Life.