[23 October 2002]
“A sign of celebrity is often their name is worth more than their services.” Daniel J. Boorstin
Fame, fame, fatal fame.
No good deed goes unpublished.
The Right Words at the Right Time is not a bad book; in fact, in some regards, it is a quite good book. The profits go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Our social betters, the famous, the politicians, businessmen and the like, to inspire us, write this book. They give us the ember of those few words that ignited their lives. Books such as this should change us, I think. Fire us up to succeed.
Fame permeates our culture in the same way nobility and lineage permitted the Victorians. We can always pay attention to those who mean well and do good, but the fact remains for a cause to be a cause celebré, it must have its famous sponsors. However, you can’t fault someone for doing well, and then doing good.
The book is conspicuously inspirational. It is a collection of stories by actors, athletes, politicians and other notables, describing the moments that changed their lives, in their own words. Thanks to limited space given to each person, it never has a chance to become overly smarmy. It pulls itself out of the inspirational platitudinous doldrums with stories like those of Christine Amanpour and Muhammad Ali, which reveal the spleen and grit that they needed to succeed.
Hollywood Babylon breeds with the Chicken Soup for the Soul series in this book. These uplifting stories are most valuable in the context of the celebrities’ celebrity. The private lives of celebrities are a much-traded commodity. “A&E Biographies,” National Inquirer, “Access Hollywood” and every other news outlet has devalued the personal experience of everyone from Tiny Tim to President Bill Clinton. Good press. Bad press. The tearful pre-award show interview has reduced the average celebrity into the static of our lives. Only the extremely wealthy or extremely eccentric can still maintain mythological proportions. None of these celebrities are either.
Beyond the obvious charitable prompt, there is also a more primal need expressed in this book. Humans, the whole stinking primate lot of us, from Adam to Truman Capote to even Jeffrey Dahmer, are social creatures. We need the company of others, whether we create them or destroy them. This book lets us look at the defining social moments for many people.
I refuse to pan this book. However, I reserve the right to recommend that the appropriate audience. This should be mandatory text for every high school guidance counselor’s office, and be purchased by everyone who would donate to a children’s hospital but only for an equal exchange or by those sufficiently interested in one of the hundred celebrities who have participated in its creation. The book also offers a wealth of signatures printed at the end of every essay, which might be of use to any one who wants to validate autographs.
This is not a bad book. This is not a great book. It suffers from the heartwarming sentimentality of a Barbara Walters interview. The prose is uneven, ranging from the clever of Mel Brookes to the workhorse of David Boies. There are some rich morsels, but reading it cover to cover is like grading essays from a freshman composition class.
But it is a well-meaning book. These celebrities donated their ink, time, and paper to help raise funds for sick children. There is a sincere hope that we might learn from their example. This book is true to its function. It does not offer us anything extra, but it does give us what it promises. The authors, Marlo Thomas and Friends, with the echoes of local morning television or a variety show, do not deny us overcoming difficulty and struggling in pursuit of their inspiration.
Understandably, this book is much like the people who submitted stories. Sometimes sublime, occasionally funny, but mostly dry and about as meaningful as the musings of say, Peggy Hill. There are a few stories here that are cause for pause, but they are the intense, most personal, and idiosyncratic, like the piece by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. But a lot of the stories are fluff. Sometimes delightful fluff, such as Thomas Wolfe’s, which is technically the book’s best-written piece and worthy of a second reading, but fluff nonetheless.
Despite our social nature, we bring our own personal meanings to things. The wisdom and enlightenment we gain is not a gift from others, but something we find in ourselves. Others can point the way, but little else. Moreover, the temptation to co-opt someone else’s “meaningful moments” as our own is a dangerous one. We lose ourselves when we live our lives vicariously. The lives and actions of others should be a little absurd. They are, after all, the foreign cultures of over six billion islands.
In the final analysis, The Right Words at the Right Time may be inspirational, but not in the way Marlo Thomas and Friends anticipated.