As meticulously researched as it is entertaining. Top stuff! 5 stars.
The (much shortened by me for the sake of brevity) blurb:
In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight. DEAD FAMOUS is a surprising, funny, and fascinating exploration of both a bygone age and how we came to inhabit our modern, fame obsessed society.
I don’t read anywhere near as much non-fiction as fiction. This is simply because I can never read it as quickly and I often find my attention sliding away from the page. However, I really wanted to read Dead Famous because I’m a fan of Greg Jenner, particularly his BBC Podcast, You’re Dead to Me (it’s on BBC Sounds, please check it out, you won’t be sorry).
Jenner excels at making history accessible, entertaining and often funny. I chuckled many times while reading Dead Famous and once laughed out loud at such volume I made my kids jump! (It was at a particularly hilarious pun, if you’re wondering).
A brain-meltingly impressive amount of research went into this book. Jenner had over 1.5 million words of research notes he had to condense down into his drafts. I can’t even imagine the work involved in organising his case studies and then how he went about choosing which stories to include. Respect.
The blurb says the book spans the bronze age to the golden age of Hollywood. However, it’s more accurate to say that it focusses on a 300-year period from the early-18th to early-20th centuries, as Jenner’s argument is that celebrity, as he manages to define it (no mean feat), came into being in the early 1700s. The stories he has chosen to illustrate his argument are a fascinating, wide-ranging bunch. And for me the most interesting aspects of these celebrities’ experiences were the elements I’d always believed were relatively recent occurences. For example, I imagined the idea of “mania” for a celeb – where mobs of fans go delirious and wild in their presence or in their pursuit – came about with the Beetles. Whereas it turns out this had actually been going on for hundreds of years before the Fab Four, and some of the stories Jenner tells of the demented behaviour of fame-crazed hordes are incredible.
Only one caveat: I read the ebook version which meant I had the slightly irritating problem of seeing a mark for a chapter endnote, but then having to wait until the end of the chapter to read said note, or having to jump away from where I was and jump back. I decided to wait until the end of the chapter, but by then I’d often forgot what the notes referred back to! It also meant all the pictures were at the end, while I’m guessing they would be printed in the middle of the physical book. So, if you’re someone who likes to keep up with footnotes, references and easily flick to look at a pic of the person you’re reading about, perhaps it’s best to get yourself a paper copy.
Overall: Dead Famous is highly entertaining, fascinating and surprising. When was the last time you read a history book you could say that about? Great stuff!