Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife is the worst book title ever

Image courtesy of Olive Drab. Image courtesy of Olive Drab.

Friday’s Last Word: Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

I have always thought Learning to East Soup with a Knife – John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam – was the just about the worst book title ever.  Several times I’ve tried to imagine someone actually trying to eat soup with a knife, hideously scarring their face (i.e. Heath Ledger as “the Joker” in The Dark Knight).  Alternate titles Nagl might have considered but rejected: Learning to Run in Lightening Storms with Large Metal Rods, Learning to Enjoy Jackhammer Dental Care, or maybe even Learning to Ride a Unicycle with an Upright Prison Shank Seat. 

OK, that last one was too far, but you get the point.  Nagl’s title suggests an undertaking that is at very best a massively bad/physically harmful idea – at worst an impossible task that just cannot be done.  The reader is left thinking: this is something that one should never, ever, ever try.  So why read the book at all if the title so strongly suggests the hopelessness of counterinsurgency?  There’s an incongruity here in that the book actually argues that it can be successful if you’re part of a “learning” organization. The title does not equal the book’s corresponding content.  At least, that’s what I’ve always been inclined to think.

And my 2.5 year old daughter Grace just confirmed my challenge to the title.  We were walking the other day (she was in her stroller);  she tried over and over to get (delicious) Goldfish crackers out of her cup while wearing bulky mittens. The futility was worth a photo (see below).

The next night my wife made a blended spinach and broccoli soup.  We gave Grace a little kid-sized bowl, and she insisted on using her fork. After two tries, she looked right up at me and said, “Daddy, please can I have a spoon?”

So, my 2.5 year old daughter – who couldn’t figure out that large mittens don’t work for eating tiny (delicious) Goldfish crackers – recognized in mere seconds that a fork is entirely insufficient for eating soup.  Which gives me confidence that she could successfully avoid Nagl’s knife soup-eating challenge.  

Is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife a horrible title – or am I being unfair? Should Grace have been on Nagl’s dissertation committee at Oxford to head this book off before it was published?  Do her natural instincts show that she has what it takes to be a future (book writing) Secretary of Defense?

Stay tuned to War Council, and all these answers (and more) will be revealed…

Image courtesy of a helicopter parent. Image courtesy of a helicopter parent.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.