Busy, Busy, Busy!

Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal featured the following curiosity: The editors asked six celebrities to describe their vacation reading, and one, Virgin chairman Richard Branson, wasn’t reading anything because he was “making changes to my upcoming autobiography, ‘Losing My Virginity.’” A second, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, was “reading my own words again and again” on “a book I am writing”–which the fall books issue of Publishers Weekly reveals to be a memoir called Reporting Live, due out in January. A third, Sen. John McCain, said he was reading The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories, but was either lying or had just skimmed the book while procrastinating, since elsewhere he has said that his autobiography is due in his publishers’ offices by the end of the year. A fourth, physicist Leon Lederman, wasn’t reading because he was composing a sequel to his book on particle physics, The God Particle, which he said was known around his house as Trapped on Chapter Six. A fifth, 15-year-old piano prodigy Helen Huang, may not even have been asked the question, but in any case did not offer the name of a book. Of the six, only the basketball star in the bunch, Detroit Piston Grant Hill, appears to have been seriously reading anything other than his own prose. His summer printed matter was a celebrity autobiography, Christopher Reeve’s Still Me.

A congress of keyboard tappers so dedicated only the athletes have time to lift their heads and read everyone else’s prose! How sane, how fully self-actualized! It is a commonplace of literary history that the emergence of autobiography in the West reflects the development of the mature, individuated, self-aware self. To quote the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey: “Autobiography is the highest and most instructive form in which the understanding of life comes before us.” Dilthey hadn’t read Dick Morris, but that’s a small point. PW lists 49 autobiographies to be published this fall, among them the lives and stories of Tony Bennett, Michael Eisner, Cher, Diane Von Furstenberg, former Senator Paul Simon, Geraldine Ferraro, Barney’s window-dresser Simon Doonan, Scott and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s daughter, Fidel Castro’s daughter, and, yes, Santa Claus.

Of course, the autobiographies of celebrities are outnumbered by those of people you’ve never heard of. This fall Fawcett Ballantine will publish the memoirs of Warren Eckstein, a pet therapist. Knopf will publish an account by an Iowa Writers’ Workshop instructor of her affair with “a drug-and-alcohol-addicted construction worker.” Houghton Mifflin will publish Apples and Oranges: A Woman’s Journey to Sexual Identity, “from a lesbian poet who falls in love with a man.” Judith Regan’s imprint will publish Puppy Chow is Better Than Prozac, “a tale of recovery from depression with the help of man’s best friend.”

Culturebox would of course have more to say on this subject, but you’ll have to excuse her … she’s caught up in a project of her own right now. ..

Judith Shulevitz