It's a tricky time for everyone at the moment - and as a book fan it's hard to ignore quite how much Covid-19 has thrown the publishing world into disarray - publishing dates are being postponed, many independent bookshops have closed completely during this time, and a lot of people, myself included, struggled to concentrate on reading in this time of immense change and uncertainty. But, things are going to continue as they are for quite some time, and now my mental state has just about adjusted to our "new normal", I wanted to take a look at a book that came out on the 19th of March - so pretty much as all of this kicked off. It's a brilliant read that deserves to be shared - so let me tell you a little bit about it.
Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, appears hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy, or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend - the list of stars whose careers burned bright, long before the Age of Television, is extensive and thrillingly varied.
Greg Jenner is a historian, broadcaster, author, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he does occasional teaching. I've been listening to Greg Jenner for a while now, as his BBC Comedy podcast "You're Dead to Me" has proved hugely eye-opening and exciting both for history buffs like me, and for friends who perhaps haven't been so keen on history in the past. The podcast allows anyone to discover fascinating facts about historical figures - but the way it's set up means that those who maybe got put off history after a bored teacher repeated dates to them ad infinitum, will hopefully have a new interest sparked by the compelling way in which the tales are told.
Telling people's stories in a compelling fashion is clearly something that Jenner excels at - and in Dead Famous he's able to combine an overarcing study of the way celebrity has grown and changed over the centuries, with intimate glimpses into the lives of those who have been raised up and celebrated for a huge variety of reasons - both good and bad.
Jenner is the historical consultant to the brilliant Horrible Histories tv show, and it's clear that he has a telent for comedy as well as history, with witty asides peppered throughout the book. It works well - this is clearly a hugely well researched piece of work, but the warmth and humour ensures that it doesn't read like a dry textbook - it has a clear focus, and the compellingly human lives that Jenner resurrects on these pages ensure that it's a page turner - he skillfully weaves fascinating facts throughout every single page, leaving me with a long sheet of people I'm keen to do more research on.
Books that combine history with humour can, in my experience, occasionally err on the side of cruelty - poking fun at the figures they reference in order to entertain readers. That certainly isn't the case here - Jenner allows fact to speak for itself with little room for harsh judgements - and that ensures that Dead Famous is a compelling piece of social history that educates just as much as it entertains - it's one of the best history books I've read in some time.
If it sounds like your cup of tea, - grab a copy where you can, and check out "You're Dead to Me" whereever you get your podcasts. The author has also just started a history podcast called Homeschool History that aims to get children interested in history during this rather difficult time - if you're in the UK it should be available on the BBC Sounds App.