A Book I Absolutely Loved: Gang Leader For A Day

There are few people I have ever met who are more interesting to talk to than Sudhir Venkatesh. I’ve known him for over a decade, and I cannot remember ever having a boring conversation with him. This Q&A with Venkatesh gives you a sedate and sanitized peek into the sorts of things he has been part of throughout his career. How many folks do you know who watch The Wire with high-ranking gang members?

His new book, Gang Leader for a Day, which hits the stores this week, is as good as any book I have read in a long time. (His two prior books were also good, but nothing at all like this one. While they were very academic, this one is not at all.) Reading it is like sitting across the table from him, soaking up amazing story after amazing story. I gladly blurbed the book, describing it as follows:

Gang Leader for a Day is an absolutely incredible book. Sudhir Venkatesh’s memoir of his years observing life in Chicago’s inner city is a book unlike any other I have read, equal parts comedy and tragedy. How is it that a naive suburban kid ends up running a crack gang (if only for a day) on his way to becoming one of the world’s leading scholars? You have to read it to find out, but heed this warning: don’t pick up the book unless you have a few hours to spare because I promise you will not be able to put it down once you start.

Dubner blogged recently about the lack of integrity in book blurbs. This is one case in which a blurb is heartfelt.

As a side note, not only do you get the best of Sudhir in the book, you also get a little bit of Dubner as well — he wrote the foreword.

S. Heaton

This book is amazing.


Tyler Cowen had a slightly different take in his review. This link is to MR, where you can link to the review if you like: http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/01/gang-leader-for.html


I am very excited to be picking up this book this weekend.


I preordered the book on Amazon, and with Am.Prime, I get two-day shipping. Why, then is it taking until Jan 14 to arrive?

I might just cancel the order and get it at B&N.

Either way, Sudhir seems like the type of person I'd want mentoring me while conducting research.


"don't pick up the book unless you have a few hours to spare because I promise you will not be able to put it down once you start."

So Cliche Steven! *wags finger*


I will recommend it to my book club - only thing is though, that we usually only read paperbacks! Sounds fascinating!


nevermind. Got it Saturday, and now Sunday night I'm about finished. I love every page of it.

Ferdinand E. Banks

I wonder how ignorant book buyers and Mr Venkatesh are to believe that you can be a gang leader for a day. There is no such thing.

The present wars in which the US is involved may last for a couple of decades, and for those who become involved they might find out how complicated it is to lead an infantry squad efficiently. Leading a gang - a real gang - is probably ten times as complicated.

And by the way, gang members are choosier about who gives them orders than neurotic academics.

Ferdinand E. Banks


Sounds great. Any chance you can publish this electronically for the Amazon Kindle?


Or the Sony Reader. Why are publishers not jumping on this bandwagon? It's a source of income with almost no marginal cost.


I wonder how accurate the book is if the gang knew they were being observed by an outsider even if that person is sympathetic. And i agreed with the MR post too. Did the gang leader exaggerate his actions to impress the author?
Wouldn't we all act differently if we were being monitored? Like the super nice Cops on the show. The Sopranos was fun to watch partly because we lived vicariously through Tony and no one was hurt in the process. Can we say the same about this book?
It would have been a whole different game if Sudhir was undercover. Would he have gained so much access and trust if he was just a foot soldier?



I wonder that myself...if anyone has read it, is there any sort of acknowledgment of this potential Heisenbergian spoilage?


oooh another "rogue" academic writing a book!


I'm with you all the way Donald-- rogue academics are the coolest thing ever! They are all so brilliant and irreverent! If I was brilliant and irreverent I would also be a rogue academic! I can hardly contain myself from openly drooling when one rogue academic endorses another rogue academic!

Stanton Van

Great book. I read it cover to cover in eight hours straight. It really opened this midwestern white boys eyes to a different way of life. Highly recomended. Buy it now!


I read it, and I agree: it was hard to put down.


Ingrid Kalchthaler

Just heard an interview in which Venkatesh states taht JT was not arrested by the Feds. The copy of Freakonomics that I have isn't the revised and updated one, so maybe this was corrected in the later edition.
Speaking of things I hope were corrected in the revised edition of Freakonomics--- let me say first I really enjoyed this book, but I was disappointed by one, the information about JT's arrest and by the mention of "the twins named Lemon Jello and Orange Jello". This twin story is an urban legend that has been around for as long as I've been around, which is quite a long time! I wouldn't have minded it if the authors would have said something like, "and then there's the urban legend of Lemon Jello and Orange Jello", but to just state is as fact...well, that coupled with the JT error, just made me doubt other parts of the book. I guess the other thing I should mention though is that I am listening to the audio book, so if there is a footnote disclaiming the twin names, I didn't have access to it. If there isn't, and/or if this isn't mentioned in the revised edition, again, it just takes a lot of the fun out of Freakonomics as a whole. Oh well, it was still a fascinating read!


Ingrid Kalchthaler

Hey! I just finished Gang Leader for a Day, which led me to pick up Freakonomics. I really enjoyed GLFAD and am likewise loving Freakonomics! I do have a question though I hope someone can help. I was pretty sure that JT was not busted by the Feds and imprisoned, according to GLFAD, but I just read in Freakonomics that he did end up in prison because of the Feds efforts. Which is true? Thanks! And thanks for the terrific books!

Caitlin Ryan

This book has helped me understand this world. I currently work as a mental health counselor in a low income, high risk area of SouthEast Chicago. Due to the above mentioned, there is heavy gang activity in this area. This book has opened up my eyes to understanding more about the gang world. My previous knowledge about gangs came from the violence and crime that was reported through the media. I thank the author for writing this book and evoking a strong curiosity about this world.