Fame! To paraphrase David Bowie, it takes over culture and conversations in a way that can be hard to swallow. Back in 1962, the historian Daniel Boorstin worried that Americans’ obsession with celebrities and their manufactured personas was deteriorating the nation’s understanding of reality. His book about that phenomenon, The Image, now feels more prescient than ever. That’s not to say celebrity culture is fully detached from reality, though. As the scholar Renee Cramer argues, seemingly trivial speculation over stars’ pregnancies reflects the broader cultural forces that affect women’s place in society.
What’s more, celebrity-watching is nothing new. The poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, for example, fascinated readers of the 1820s with the dark hints about her personal life that she dropped in her poetry. The 20th century brought a certain romanticized fame for “literary lions” such as Philip Roth. And while that particular kind of celebrity might be on its way out, the writer Anna Todd’s experience illustrates how the internet has created new ways for writers to gain a platform and following.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
The dark secrets of 19th-century London’s “female Byron”
“[The poet Letitia Elizabeth] Landon explored the art of performative self-creation in the commercial press—an art fated to become a habit in the social-media age—and she was one of the first to pay its costs.”
📚 L.E.L: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” by Lucasta Miller
Pop culture’s fraught obsession with celebrity baby bumps
“The way that famous mothers-to-be are discussed and obsessed over reflects deep-seated attitudes about gender, race, and reproductive rights. ”
📚 Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, by Renee Cramer
The death of the literary lion
“Humming in the lower registers of the obits for [Philip Roth], lurking just at the edges, is a mourning not just for Roth, but also for the notion of literary greatness itself. ”
📚 The Human Stain, by Philip Roth
📚 The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, by Philip Roth
📚 Everyman, by Philip Roth
The One Direction fan-fiction novel that became a literary sensation
“[Anna] Todd’s After series has been published as four volumes by Simon & Schuster in a six-figure deal, earned a spot on the New York Times best-seller list, been read nearly 1.6 billion times on Wattpad, been translated into more than 35 languages, and been adapted into a feature film.”
📚 After, by Anna Todd
The Image in the age of pseudo-reality
“While The Image may have arrived on the scene, chronologically, before the comings of Twitter and Kimye and an understanding of ‘reality’ as a genre as much as a truth, the book also managed to predict them—so neatly that it reads … not just as prescience, but as prophesy.”
📚 The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin
To celebrate National Poetry Month, we asked you to share a poem that evokes strong memories for you. For one reader, Larry, that’s “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden:
It could have been written about me and the household I grew up in. My parents had a coal furnace in their GI Bill suburban brick bungalow. There were “chronic angers” in that house. And, much to my self-righteous, childish annoyance, my father always polished my shoes before Mass on Sundays, even though he didn’t attend church himself. “What did I know, what did I know / Of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Every time I read this poem, even now, I’m “gettin’ kinda misty” (to quote Maynard G. Krebs) thinking about these things, and how unkind I was to my father in many ways in the ignorance of my youth.
From the Forum
The Books Briefing is collaborating with The Masthead, The Atlantic’s premium membership program, on a books discussion group that—like each Books Briefing issue—is focused on a monthly theme, and driven by members’ reading tastes and recommendations. April’s topic was celebrity. @dokomade suggests Idoru, by William Gibson:
It’s a cyberpunk novel set in a future Tokyo. Idoru reminds us science fiction and its cousins can often offer us important insights to present realities. In Idoru that includes how an out-of-control pop idol system can affect basic human values and social cohesion.
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