Discussed in this essay:
The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck. Harvard University Press. 384 pages. $35.
The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World, by Jeffrey Kluger. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.
Imagine yourself a talented, ambitious 1950s Midwestern high school boy who wants nothing more than to become a novelist. You’ve already had a few heady successes as a writer, including first prize in a statewide essay contest, which gave you the confidence to submit your fiction to elite magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s, which rejected them (though one rejection, from The Saturday Evening Post, commended your “free-ranging inventiveness”). You’ve gotten yourself accepted to Harvard. But when you arrive, you discover that of all the lousy fates that might befall an ambitious young writer, yours is to be assigned, as your freshman roommate, another ambitious young writer — one who will soon take his place among the most acclaimed novelists and literary stylists of the twentieth century and is already showing signs of genius. It’s a situation that might dissuade even the most confident of kids — some would call it a narcissistic injury.