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Originally published Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 5:15 AM

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‘I Wear the Black Hat’: the essential anatomy of a villain

Chuck Klosterman’s “I Wear the Black Hat” is an incisive meditation on the essential attributes of a villain. Klosterman writes “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times magazine.

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‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)’

by Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, 214 pp., $25

Before he scored his high-profile gig as The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, culture critic Chuck Klosterman wrote disarming nonfiction on unexpected topics, including Britney Spears, pro sports and how heavy metal shaped his childhood in Fargo, N.D. His latest book of incisive, funny essays is aimed at a predictably unpredictable target: villains.

In “I Wear the Black Hat,” Klosterman writes of Machiavelli’s signature work that “ ‘The Prince’ can be read like a self-help book for someone who openly aspires to be depraved.” For Klosterman, it’s not Machiavelli’s cynical advice that’s repellent — it’s the fact that he sounds so “cold.” As Klosterman puts it, “In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.”

Armed with this definition, he turns his attention to a long list of widely disliked people and fictional characters: among many others, O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin and, most memorably, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. In the twisted saga of sex abuse at Penn State, Klosterman writes, pedophile Jerry Sandusky was the monster, but Paterno, who failed to stop Sandusky’s depredations, was something worse — the man who “had to choose between humanity and sport, and picked the one that mattered less.” “No normal person wants to hate a dead man he once admired,” Klosterman adds about Paterno. “It feels abnormal and cheap. But what’s the alternative?”

Klosterman attacks his subjects with intellectual rigor and humor, qualities rarely conjoined since David Foster Wallace hanged himself. Few readers will get everything here — I loved Klosterman’s hilarious comparison of the gangsta rap group N.W.A. and the Oakland Raiders, but couldn’t quite follow his detailed dissection of the team’s running game. Whether you understand all of it or just some of it, though, you should read this thought-provoking book.

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