Three Rivers Press, 2007. 310 pages.
The official version of the story goes like this: Inspired by memories of playing “Bigger and Better” as a kid, and by urban legends of other kids trading up to such prizes as cars, Kyle MacDonald embarked on an adventure. Beginning with an ordinary red paperclip which happened to be lying on his desk, Kyle began trading with person after person, slowly acquiring larger and more valuable items until, finally, he reached his end goal: A house.
A moment, and we’ll get to the fuller story.
One Red Paperclip wants so much to inspire and to impress. MacDonald waxes long about the human element of his trades; he insists each trade be made in person, and he insists each trade be meaningful to each person, because he wants to help/meet/befriend real people. In an attempt at self-help he ends each chapter with a few banal platitudes. For example
JUST TRADE IT
You can talk and plan and scheme and design and worry and come up excuses until the cows come home. But at some point you’ll realize that unless you’re a farmer, you don’t own any cows and it’s probably a bit of a long show that cows will miraculously appear at your doorstep to signify that something is supposed to happen. If you want it to happen, you need to act on your idea.
They get much sillier, and sometimes don’t even make sense. But all things considered, I don’t think MacDonald had anything better to offer. This brings us back to the full story.
Kyle MacDonald, an unemployed guy living with his girlfriend feels a dull urge to contribute something–say, rent money. His longsuffering girlfriend encourages this urge. Reluctantly he sits down to work on a résumé but, finding that is too hard or too boring, decides to start a trading game instead. He advertises his paperclip on Craigs List, explaining that he’s trying to trade up to a house. Someone is taken by the novelty of his idea and plays along. He quickly trades a few items until he can trade for something of real value: Media attention. This newfound fame he uses as currency to, ultimately, get a house. At the end of the story he’s got his house and proposes to his girlfriend. There is apparently no further plan to earn any money, and we’re forced to assume his girlfriend will be stuck with property taxes, etc. (MacDonald now does speaking engagements, so his media currency stretched a little further.)
To a certain extent One Red Paperclip is in fact inspiring. In far too many pages it drives home the point: If you have an idea, if it’s feasible and fun, go for it. What’ve you got to lose? But that’s a pretty uninteresting message for so long a book. It’s basically an extended commentary on Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. I’m much more inspired by this interview with Nick Offerman, who actually works for what he wants.
MacDonald attempts to pass off various character flaws as charming quirks. His reticence to even make a resume or to apply for a job, while his girlfriend works to pay the bills. His slovenly appearance (a guy’s mom cutting his hair is not necessarily a fault, but it’s not something to be trumpeted either). His dependence on (rather than engagement with) his family. His priorities. He coins a term, “funtential,” to describe the potential for fun on a given trade or excursion. But making “fun” your primary goal is more than a little immature. MacDonald tacitly decries the dignity of work. Not to mention his lazy advice for everyone to drop everything to pursue their dreams of not working and putzing around is horribly impractical. For that matter, throughout his book he never once appreciates his girlfriend’s perseverance in working while he has fun here and there, freeloading.
One Red Paperclip is written in a sort of conversational prose that at some points approaches stream of consciousness. He seems fascinated with his own telephone’s ringtone, the taste of cookies, the significance of his own looks at other people. Again, I think it’s supposed to be charming, but ends up frustrating. I fully accept the possibility MacDonald is amusing in person or at a speaking engagement, but his writing is severely in need of an editor.
I wish I could recommend this book; the concept is very interesting. But even after I realized all I wanted was a list of his trades, I was disappointed. A sincere journey of “Bigger and Better” would have been a great story. Trading visibility on the CBC for a house is remarkably boring.