Friday, February 11, 2011

Fame, by Tom Payne

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.

Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of CelebrityTom 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.


  1. EVERY one of Oliver Sacks books is GREAT--i haven't read his newest--but i don't doubt it will be as wonderful as all the others.

    Uncle Tungsten--part a book on the history of chemistry and part auto biography is one of the best.

  2. OfTroy: I read a few pages of Uncle Tungsten in the bookstore when it first came out--but must have had toddler-mother-brain back then since I promptly forgot about it. I'll try to round up a copy. My son is old enough now that he might even like it.

  3. Synchronicity! I am about 9/10ths of the way through UNCLE TUNGSTEN right now! Try also RIDDLED WITH LIFE, by Marlene Zuk and THE FARMING GAME, by Bryan Jones. And here are three novels that blew me away in 2010: A SUITABLE BOY, by Vikram Seth; Q ROAD, by Bonnie Jo Campbell; and SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY, by Elliot Perlman.

  4. PJ Grath: My goodness--synchronicity squared! I haven't read Jones but the book is something I've been looking at because of my love of Joel Salatin's quirky-brilliant work on agriculture. So glad to hear a good review.

  5. 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.

    I love this process - gradually becoming persuaded of a thesis that at first seemed outlandish.

    And I love your "brilliant intellectual party" parallel. A book that struck me that way is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's The Age of Homespun, which is pretty much the polar opposite of Fame in that it examines early American history from an everyday perspective through the lens of specific, hand-made artifacts (a chest of drawers, a half-finished knitted stocking, etc.) discovered around New England. It's FASCINATING, both in content and approach.

  6. Oooh, oooh! More synchronicity! When I was in grad school studying history--especially American and women's history--Ulrich was always on the syllabus. Her Midwife's Tale is an excellent piece of thinking and writing. I love the idea of thinking of her work as the polar opposite of Fame. Her approach absolutely fits much better with my assumptions about how the world works, and yet her books are still consistently surprising and clever as well.

    And just for a little more synchronicity, anything about fiber and textiles can make my list.


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