Political cartoons are drawn in stark black-and-white, snapshots that leave little room for nuance. As a political cartoonist, Tim Kreider was limited by the speech bubbles, but his collection of essays and cartoons, We Learn Nothing (Free Press, 240 pages, $20), gives him room to draw observations outside of the panels. Anticipating something like caustic wit from an artist who spent eight years cheerfully harpooning the Bush administration, I was relieved to find careful observations on life's complexity.

That Kreider is more than a little familiar with complexity is clear from his vibrant and relatable anecdotes. Could a friend's sex change, or the condition of being addicted to love, or of meeting half-siblings for the first time at 40, ever be described as anything other than complicated?

The focus being almost entirely on his own life, Kreider's approach is not that of your typical, smug cultural commentator. While most columnists pull from their own experiences to tease out universals, the goal is usually to talk about something other than themselves.

Kreider is engaging precisely because he turns his wit on himself. His unflinching self-awareness, aimed at even the most reprehensible corners of his character, allows readers to recognize their own questionable tendencies without feeling attacked.

To offer a particularly timely example, in an essay entitled "When They're Not Assholes," Kreider catches himself hating on flag-waving, protesting bible-thumpers. After recognizing a student he respects among their ranks, he's ashamed of the generalizations he's made, indirectly suggesting that you might want to think about being ashamed of your own.

In a political atmosphere as angry as this, his oblique, self-deprecating commentary may be the only angle to which party loyalists on either side are likely to respond. We Learn Nothing should be their required reading.

GO: Tim Kreider will appear at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651, on Monday, July 30. 7:30 pm. Free.