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Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World, Olga Khazan’s debut nonfiction book, reads like it was written for a younger version of the author. That’s not just a guess: Part of the book’s angle and narrative is based on how Khazan, a reporter at The Atlantic, grew up as a Russian Jewish immigrant in Midland, Texas. Her childhood was one marked by ostracism and a persistent sense of not belonging, which pushed her, in adulthood, to try and see her strangeness as a strength. Thus, we have Weird, where Khazan sets out to reclaim the label as a source of creativity, adaptivity, and uniqueness.
Although Weird is structured as a typical pop-psychology book, full of insights from researchers and scientists, like the articles Khazan regularly publishes at The Atlantic, the book’s biggest strengths lie outside the realm of science. Studies prop up the main thesis—that “weirdness” of many kinds makes for better out-of-the-box thinking and resilience—but the heart of the book is in the lovingly crafted narratives of the widely varied “weirdos” Khazan profiles. Her prose is animating, specific, rich, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny when she tells the stories of her subjects, who range from a doctor with dwarfism to a fish-out-of-water liberal at a deep red Texas university. Khazan writes with affection for her subjects, though she’s not afraid to challenge them—when one man sets out to make friends because his marriage will crumble with no outside support, Khazan writes, “When he first explained that, I thought it sounded a little calculating. How would his friends feel, knowing they were the only things standing between him, his wife, and a divorce lawyer?” before coming around. A conservative couple who moves to McKinney, Texas, where she went to high school, asks her if she’d consider moving back; she says “I almost didn’t have the heart to tell them no. Almost.”
But the book’s premise is stretched at times. Feeling awkward around classmates as a young Russian immigrant isn’t the same as some of the struggles her subjects have faced, and she sees the gulfs in their lived experiences—“I don’t mean for this grouping, however, to imply that I consider the low-level unease of, say, a white immigrant to be equivalent to the obstacles faced by people of color or those living with rare medical conditions. Being laughed at by preteens and being discriminated against for centuries are simply not comparable experiences,” she writes in the introduction. Still, there are some notable stumbles. When we meet Jess Herbst, who was the first openly transgender mayor in Texas, within two paragraphs Khazan uses her former name and mentions features like “the large hands of the man she presented publicly as just a few years ago.” One can argue this is a choice intended to highlight just how “weird” Herbst is to a cisgender outsider (or, in the nature of the book’s title, an insider), but the choice is thrown into relief by how the narrative characterizes another trans woman introduced later on, Vivienne Ming, whose hands and deadname are left out—maybe because, in the words of the narrative, “her surgical procedures worked so well that no one would ever suspect she wasn’t assigned female at birth.” In effect, Khazan’s prose can other her subjects in the same ways their communities do, and even if that’s a source of strength, as she argues, it stings. Plus, despite the explicit acknowledgement that not all forms of “weirdness” are equal, it can be difficult to square the outsiderness of a conservative professor in a predominantly liberal field with that of a Muslim immigrant from Africa who grows up in a small Southern town.
But Khazan’s book sings when she gives herself room to write about people’s quirks, vulnerabilities, and habits. That’s why the book’s fourth and final section, “To Stay Different or To Find Your Own Kind?,” focused entirely on wrapping up these people’s stories, is almost disappointingly short. In it, Khazan writes about herself and her interviewees one after the other, with the momentum not broken up by explanations of social psychology, and the effect is transporting. For readers who love a well written, thoroughly researched social science book, Weird hits the spot. And for those who grew up like Khazan or see themselves in her story, it may be a balm for the soul.
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