I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman; Scribner, 214 pages ($25). It was clearly a great American media moment, but what wasn’t quite clear at the outset is if it was better for the newspaper or the writer. I’m talking about the moment when Chuck Klosterman succeeded former Letterman show writer Randy Cohen as the ethicist for the New York Times magazine. Hiring a brilliant, disheveled freelance critic and essayist (G, Spin, The Believer, the Washington Post, Esquire etc.) as an ethics arbitrator is a little like what might have happened if some editor had been able to ask Lester Bangs to replace Martin Buber in a monthly magazine’s discourse on God.

So here’s hopeless cityboy Klosterman as a 40-year-old veteran in pop culture’s wiseass trade worrying about this simple fact: “I care about strangers when they’re abstractions but I feel almost nothing when they’re literally in front of me.” Which, he says, immediately brings up such questions as “1) Am I a psychopath? 2) Is my definition of the word ‘care’ different from the definition held by other people… 3) Does my awareness of this emotional gap actually mean I care more than other people? Or is that comical self-deception?” Etc., etc. But what we really want Klosterman explaining to us here are such things as, he says in one essay’s title, why he’s “contractually obligated to hate the Eagles.” (“they were the antithesis of ‘The Rockford Files.’ While many of their arena-rock peers were misogynist for how they physically interacted with groupies, the Eagles directed their distaste toward the secret interior motives all hot women allegedly preserved (‘Witchy Women’ being the easiest example, ‘Lyin Eyes’ being the most direct”) Which leads to “I cannot be trusted about anything and I can’t even trust myself.”

There’s more. And all of it wildly, compulsively readable. Was, for instance, Machiavelli Machiavellian? (Of course not. His writing – immortally – contradicts itself as do few others.) How, according to Chuck, do Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O.J. Simpson have a lot in common, given that “one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife.” Klosterman will tell you – fascinatingly, brilliantly and with all the logic in the world. One of our great pop culture essayists.

– Jeff Simon