Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Posted by Kurt

I didn't expect much when I impulse bought this book at a used book store.  I recognized Toby Young's name from his appearances as an occasional guest judge on Top Chef, where I didn't like him much but appreciated his shameless bitterness, and I found the book title very clever.  When I finally got around to reading the book, though, I was surprised to love it.

The story is a memoir from Young's journey through the New York City magazine publishing world in the mid-1990s.  I have little interest in NYC culture or print magazines, but I found Young's observations fascinating, with a real depth of analysis of a subject that could have been a silly collection of gossip.  To be sure, there is plenty of gossip here, with horror stories about life in the offices of a Conde Nast publication and observations from Oscar parties, but Young approaches his work with a surprising amount of sobriety and gravity.  He describes a particular magazine's goal as being something like "smart people writing about stupid things," and that's what he achieves here.

The dualities really create a positive tension that makes this book rewarding to contemplate after the fact.  Young doesn't fit in with some crowds because he shamelessly loves celebrity culture, and with others because he recognizes that this love is stupid and possibly harmful to society.  He indulges in immaturity in the vein of Tucker Max (constant hangovers from booze and drugs, a callous encounter with an immigrant woman that will make you hate him almost as much as he momentarily hates himself, a prank with a stripper that made me laugh out loud) but develops a truly impressive maturity through a relationship near the end of the book.  Through it all, Young is intelligent, articulate, and witty, willing to criticize others but refusing to humiliate anyone but himself. 

I didn't expect to like this book, but by the time I hit the 2/3 mark, I had already purchased a copy of the follow-up.  I highly recommend this book to fans of pop culture.

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