How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
— Reverend Mother, The Sound of Music
How do you categorize and describe bohemians, those impulsive, free-spirited pioneers in art, literature, and life? The much-mythologized nature of the free and easy bohemian lifestyle did not strike me as a natural choice for the subject of a how-to guide. However, from the introduction through the last page of notes, author Laren Stover’s seductive descriptions and complete dedication to presenting her subject matter assuage any fears about the authenticity of Bohemian Manifesto. An impressive combination of quotes, historical anecdotes, meticulous research, and a dash of cheekiness all leave the reader informed and inspired. Whether or not you are fully convinced of the existence of true Bohemia in 2004, Stover is, and that is what makes the difference.
The world of Bohemia, with all its nuances, is presented with great reverence and attention to detail. Rather than rehashing a bygone age, this guide is all about preserving, reviving, and reworking a lifestyle very pertinent to today. It plugs an end to conspicuous consumerism and hyperbolic technical gadgetry and instead offers a charming version of the simple life, albeit cloaked in fantastical shabby velvet and a thick veil of smoke from some obscure French cigarette. The bohemian ethic applies well to the new millennium young and young-at-heart populations eschewing the feed, breed, and greed way of life. The radical counterculture of days gone by offers valuable lessons to those seeking to live outside the societal mainstream today. Stover does offer a disclaimer of sorts: The bohemian lifestyle described and revered in this tome focuses on the mystery, romance, and excitement of bohemian living. It does not claim to educate readers on the less attractive aspects of Bohemia such as occasional homelessness, poverty, and other unsavory realities that come with living “gently outside the norm.”
Bohemian Manifesto reads like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: The How-To Guide. Functioning as a droll read for the established bohemian-type and an invaluable resource for the novice, Manifesto offers advice on wardrobe, hygiene, astrology, and everything in between. Particularly entertaining are the short lists and anecdotes included in the book. A list of things never found in the bohemian home will draw a chuckle, while the do’s and don’ts of bohemian bedroom etiquette will strike some readers as eerily familiar and slightly embarrassing. As Stover so eloquently puts it, “never sleep with a Bohemian unless you are willing to have it end up in the public domain.” Break-up haircuts, condiments filched from every eatery and coffee shop in the city… there are some aspects of Bohemia that touch us all.
Stover’s zeal comes on full force in the descriptions of the five modern day bohemian personas: Dandy, Zen, Nouveau, Beat, and Gypsy, all characters in which you will surely see bits of yourself or your acquaintances. The charm of Stover’s book, and the saving grace in terms of relevance today, is that each type of modern-day Bohemian corresponds well to current niches in society. Gypsy Bohemians are whirling their hearts out at Phish shows across the land, Zen Bohemians are fighting the good fight with Greenpeace, and every week on cable TV, five fabulous Dandy Bohemians set straight men, er, straight on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Bohemia, new millennium-style, is everywhere. Readers may traverse the various intellectual and fashion throughways of bohemian life before settling on a suitable fit within, and Stover offers incredibly detailed accounts of each type of sub-type. From Rimbaud devotees to Radiohead fans, everyone will be able find a niche in Stover’s Bohemia. If you’re still not sure, flip to the back of the book for a quick quiz and bohemian diagnosis.
That Bohemian Manifesto seems to be a labor of love is no better expressed than in the extensive lists included in the book. With enough information to be a stand-alone publication, these lists are indispensable for readers wishing to educate themselves on the facts and fiction of Bohemia. Reading lists include dictionaries and reference books, must-reads divided by bohemian sub-type, erotica, and the playful category of bohemian-lite. Also included are suggestions on incendiary art and artists as well as bohemian actors, actresses, and cinematic favorites.
The book culminates in a special section entitled “Nine Bohemian Case Studies.” In this chapter, Stover presents vignettes of diverse people whose lives are encompassed within the boundaries of Bohemia. Personal demographics and wardrobe particulars make these case studies quite entertaining, although at times I found myself preferring the decadent idea of Bohemian living as opposed to the gritty bare-bulb reality of life as part of America’s radical intelligentsia.
If nothing else, Bohemian Manifesto decodes the mystery of old movies and novels; the languid kimono thrown over the bedroom door, the rose-colored scarf over the lampshade, thick lipstick smudges on smoldering cigarette butts — this is Bohemia. From obscure French poetry to the classically accessible Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, Bohemian Manifesto offers something for everyone.