I've just finished a book that made me feel like I was a party--one of those strange literary-magazine parties in college full of brilliant and well-educated friends, slowly getting drunk on Black Russians, coming up with crazy visionary ideas which I, still sober and not so well educated, could almost follow.
Tom Payne's new Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity is an enormously clever reading of the concept of celebrity across time and place. The author explores everything from the ancient Greeks to Goethe, from Michael Jackson to Angelina Jolie. He starts off by comparing a newly-bald Britney Spears to Euripides's heriones--and if anything, the books gets more surprising from there on out.
Fame is a brilliantly playful book, the product of a man enormously well versed in classical literature, the latest in pop culture, and everything in between. What fun the author must have had plotting out this book! His style fits his topic perfectly: witty, light-hearted, and at least a wee bit mischievous.
Payne argues, only somewhat facetiously, that social historians trying to understand the world by studying the everyday lives of normal working people are going about their endeavor all wrong. "This book says phooey to all that," writes Payne. "We shouldn't rule out heroes and villains. Even if they don't really explain how things are today, it's still important that we made heroes and villains out of them; and that tells us so much about us."
I know neither all the classical literature to which Payne refers nor the pop-culture allusions. (Let me acknowledge up front that I live in a bubble. I grew up without television and we don't have one now. I listen to NPR. When in the airport, I pick up The Economist at the newsstand before I board the plane. Almost everything I know about pop culture comes from the sidebar headlines over at Huffington Post. Well--that was all true, until I read this book. I learned a tremendous amount about current pop culture from Fame.) But Payne does not assume his readers will know everything he is comparing. Although some of the comparisons seem far-fetched as he begins particular anecdotes, I was consistently stunned as I reached the end of his analyses, nodding my head and smiling with the pleasure of nerdy cleverness.
Although process seems more important than point in this book, Fame does have a thesis--one that will last long after some of the pop icons have disappeared from the rumor-mill radar screen. Payne argues that we treat our celebrities as demi-gods: larger than life, more exciting and beautiful than we could ever be, often with bigger flaws than normal mortals have. He writes, "We allow these quasi-divine people the hedonism that cannot last. They live for us, and we live through them." And, disturbingly, when that hedonism leads to downfall, we delight in their destruction as it feeds our desire for human sacrifice.
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Have you ever read a book that left you wondering in the morning if that wild party could have really happened last night? I think I felt that way after reading Oliver Sack's amazingly mind-expanding The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Please share with me some of your favorites!
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Thanks to Picador press for providing a review copy of this entertaining and fascinating book.