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Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity

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We may regard celebrities as deities, but that does not mean we worship them with deference. From prehistory to the present, humanity has possessed a primal urge first to exalt the famous but then to cut them down (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Why do we treat the ones we love like burnt offerings in a ritual of human sacrifice? Perhaps because that is exactly what they are. F We may regard celebrities as deities, but that does not mean we worship them with deference. From prehistory to the present, humanity has possessed a primal urge first to exalt the famous but then to cut them down (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Why do we treat the ones we love like burnt offerings in a ritual of human sacrifice? Perhaps because that is exactly what they are. From Greek mythology to the stories of the Christian martyrs and Dr. Faustus, Payne makes the fascinating argument that our relationship to celebrity is perilous, and that we wouldn't have it any other way. He also shows that the people we choose as our heroes and villains throughout the ages says a lot about ourselves—and what it says is often quite frightening. Fame even brings new life to all the literary figures from our high school English classes. In these pages, the most ephemeral reality television stars (those "famous for being famous") find themselves in the same VIP lounge as the characters of The Iliad. With great wit, scholarship, and insight, Tom Payne draws the narratives of the past and the present into one intriguing story. Fame is a dazzling, hilarious look at the mortals, and the immortals—us and them.


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We may regard celebrities as deities, but that does not mean we worship them with deference. From prehistory to the present, humanity has possessed a primal urge first to exalt the famous but then to cut them down (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Why do we treat the ones we love like burnt offerings in a ritual of human sacrifice? Perhaps because that is exactly what they are. F We may regard celebrities as deities, but that does not mean we worship them with deference. From prehistory to the present, humanity has possessed a primal urge first to exalt the famous but then to cut them down (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Why do we treat the ones we love like burnt offerings in a ritual of human sacrifice? Perhaps because that is exactly what they are. From Greek mythology to the stories of the Christian martyrs and Dr. Faustus, Payne makes the fascinating argument that our relationship to celebrity is perilous, and that we wouldn't have it any other way. He also shows that the people we choose as our heroes and villains throughout the ages says a lot about ourselves—and what it says is often quite frightening. Fame even brings new life to all the literary figures from our high school English classes. In these pages, the most ephemeral reality television stars (those "famous for being famous") find themselves in the same VIP lounge as the characters of The Iliad. With great wit, scholarship, and insight, Tom Payne draws the narratives of the past and the present into one intriguing story. Fame is a dazzling, hilarious look at the mortals, and the immortals—us and them.

30 review for Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity

  1. 5 out of 5

    Simon Mcleish

    Entertaining, if somewhat shallow, discussion of attitudes through the ages. It's not much of a surprise to learn that things like delight in the downfall of celebrities, and the feeling that today's famous people haven't done as much to earn their place in the pantheon as those of the past are attitudes which have been around at least since the ancient Greeks. Some of his discussions are quite sharp (the analysis of the marketing of celebrity perfumes was particularly so). But it lacks insight, Entertaining, if somewhat shallow, discussion of attitudes through the ages. It's not much of a surprise to learn that things like delight in the downfall of celebrities, and the feeling that today's famous people haven't done as much to earn their place in the pantheon as those of the past are attitudes which have been around at least since the ancient Greeks. Some of his discussions are quite sharp (the analysis of the marketing of celebrity perfumes was particularly so). But it lacks insight, and the lack of examples from wider history let the book down - almost the only reference point other than modern (British, mainly) pop culture and the classical world is James Frazer's now Victorian anthropological compendium The Golden Bough.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tiffany

    I have absolutely no doubt that this would be a great book for someone to read, just not for me. The premise is a pretty great one: comparing our current pop culture (obsession) with stories from classical mythology and history. For example, Payne parallels Britney Spears shaving off her hair in 2007 with historical rites of passage that included shaving one's head, and he says that Britney was going through her own transition/rite of passage at the time. He also spends a chapter talking about be I have absolutely no doubt that this would be a great book for someone to read, just not for me. The premise is a pretty great one: comparing our current pop culture (obsession) with stories from classical mythology and history. For example, Payne parallels Britney Spears shaving off her hair in 2007 with historical rites of passage that included shaving one's head, and he says that Britney was going through her own transition/rite of passage at the time. He also spends a chapter talking about beauty -- how we perceive starlets (like Kate Winslet) and their beauty, compared to how Louis XV looked for beautiful women, or men in ancient Greece looked for beautiful men, and how the definition of "beautiful men" varied even in that time in ancient Greece. So the idea behind the book is pretty nifty. But for some reason, it just wasn't clicking with me. I don't know if I expected stronger parallels/stronger arguments, or if I felt like Payne was trying too hard to make connections between current pop culture and classical history, or if he just wasn't explaining in-depth enough the connections he saw. Whatever reason, I knew I liked the idea of the book, it just wasn't grabbing me enough to continue reading it. I'd give it 3 stars--a middle-of-the-road rating--but Goodreads says that 3 stars is "liked it," but for me, it was really just "ok," so 2 stars it is.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sandra Visser

    This is a good premise but Payne can't seem to get to the point. He uses a lot of examples but doesn't take his analysis far enough - the dots don't join together to make a satisfying argument of offer any real insight. Just as it seems he's getting somewhere he jumps to another scenario that has parallels with the ancient world or any random time he sees fit without following through on what he's trying to say. He also uses far too many examples of D-list British reality stars who I can only va This is a good premise but Payne can't seem to get to the point. He uses a lot of examples but doesn't take his analysis far enough - the dots don't join together to make a satisfying argument of offer any real insight. Just as it seems he's getting somewhere he jumps to another scenario that has parallels with the ancient world or any random time he sees fit without following through on what he's trying to say. He also uses far too many examples of D-list British reality stars who I can only vaguely recall or not at all, which severely dates this book. It all got really boring really fast. A big disappointment. If only I'd borrowed this from the library I wouldn't have forced myself to finish it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Payne's book reminded me of college, and would have definitely fit in on many of the honors college syllabi I saw during my tenure there. It starts out with this great thesis that our ideas of fame, why we seek it and how we feel about it have been around since the beginning of time. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that fame and celebrity fill several voids in our collective psyche. All of this makes the book very exciting and engaging in the beginning. I couldn't put it down. But somewhere in Payne's book reminded me of college, and would have definitely fit in on many of the honors college syllabi I saw during my tenure there. It starts out with this great thesis that our ideas of fame, why we seek it and how we feel about it have been around since the beginning of time. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that fame and celebrity fill several voids in our collective psyche. All of this makes the book very exciting and engaging in the beginning. I couldn't put it down. But somewhere in the second half it starts to drag and feel tedious. Then it ends abruptly leaving you feeling like there is a payoff, some big aha moment that you missed out on. Payne should have gone back and reworked his conclusion.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    This engaging and witty book examines our fascination with celebrities in the light of classical art, society and literature, the work of James Frazer and cultural anthropologists, and history. If that all sounds like a dull tome, this brief book most assuredly is not at all dull and Payne's insights are often served with dry humor. Far-ranging, funny and insightful. This engaging and witty book examines our fascination with celebrities in the light of classical art, society and literature, the work of James Frazer and cultural anthropologists, and history. If that all sounds like a dull tome, this brief book most assuredly is not at all dull and Payne's insights are often served with dry humor. Far-ranging, funny and insightful.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Dusan Tatransky

    It was pretty good. It had some decent insights how the relation of public and celebrity evolved, or better said - it hasnt changed much. From antiquity and myths through renessaince to nowdays, the author singles out some pretty thought provoking paralels and insights. There is a lot of interesting characters from the past, and intriguing stories I have never heard of. The downside is that the author makes them quite scrappy. I didnt catch any straight sequence of ideas, I couldnt make head or It was pretty good. It had some decent insights how the relation of public and celebrity evolved, or better said - it hasnt changed much. From antiquity and myths through renessaince to nowdays, the author singles out some pretty thought provoking paralels and insights. There is a lot of interesting characters from the past, and intriguing stories I have never heard of. The downside is that the author makes them quite scrappy. I didnt catch any straight sequence of ideas, I couldnt make head or tail of it. When I started reading the book it took a little time til I got used to the authors style. But if you are interested in the phenomenon of celebrity I consider it quite rich of a source.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jocelin

    First, I would like to thank Goodreads for picking me as a winner of this book giveaway. It was such a surpise to be chosen. I thought this book would be a comparative study between the classics and the sensationalism of tabloid entertainment. I was wrong; there was not a lot of contrasts at all. What I read was a lot of tidbits on history against stories that have been written in the media. I thought I would gain a little insight as to what the author thought; but he spend time in one chapter ta First, I would like to thank Goodreads for picking me as a winner of this book giveaway. It was such a surpise to be chosen. I thought this book would be a comparative study between the classics and the sensationalism of tabloid entertainment. I was wrong; there was not a lot of contrasts at all. What I read was a lot of tidbits on history against stories that have been written in the media. I thought I would gain a little insight as to what the author thought; but he spend time in one chapter talking about Kate Winslet's weight (your point being?). The premise of this book is very fascinating and one with great promise. I think that the author really could have made a great statement on this cultural (loosely) phenomenon. I do believe that we as a society spend way to much time trying to make people famous for no earthly reason. Most people don't know who Charles Dickens, Richard Wright and Judy Blume are. But they could probably tell you the name of Lindsay Lohan's treatment center. It is really sad when a book has so much to offer and delivers little.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ben Zajdel

    Payne does an excellent job of comparing our treatment of modern-day celebrities with the legends and myths of the past. He shows that humans have a need for heroes--a class of people just above us, but still vulnerable. Two of my favorite chapters were those on Achilles and Faust. The Achilles principle--it's better to burn out than to fade away was remarkably interesting. Payne discusses rock stars that die at a young age but are remembered forever because of their talent. We, as a culture, fee Payne does an excellent job of comparing our treatment of modern-day celebrities with the legends and myths of the past. He shows that humans have a need for heroes--a class of people just above us, but still vulnerable. Two of my favorite chapters were those on Achilles and Faust. The Achilles principle--it's better to burn out than to fade away was remarkably interesting. Payne discusses rock stars that die at a young age but are remembered forever because of their talent. We, as a culture, feel that their talent is a gift that can't be held onto for too long. The other chapter I found especially intriguing was the one on Faust. Culturally, we are okay with the rich and famous enjoying every luxury, but we feel that if they indulge too much, it will kill them, literally and metaphorically. They cannot abuse their luxurious life in which everything is given to them, or else they will be left without a soul. Great book for those familiar with the classics and interested in sociology.

  9. 5 out of 5

    K

    I received an advanced uncorrected proof copy of Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity through GoodReads.com’s FirstReads giveaway program. The last book I won through the program was But Not for Long by Michelle Wildgen and the book has been so boring that I've been tempted to put it down numerous times. As someone who cannot understand the cult of celebrity and also has a passion for mythology, I am looking forward to finishing that text and beginning my reading of Fame: W I received an advanced uncorrected proof copy of Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity through GoodReads.com’s FirstReads giveaway program. The last book I won through the program was But Not for Long by Michelle Wildgen and the book has been so boring that I've been tempted to put it down numerous times. As someone who cannot understand the cult of celebrity and also has a passion for mythology, I am looking forward to finishing that text and beginning my reading of Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Beth Anne

    i have enjoyed multiple articles by tom payne in the wall street journal and on the huffington post...and this book did not disappoint. i found the juxtaposition between historical figures and modern day celebrities was genius....making us (the reader) think about how and why celebrities act like they do, and how we turn celebrities into deities. there were some parts that droned on a bit, but the overall observations were quite amusing, interesting and thought provoking. perhaps being interested i have enjoyed multiple articles by tom payne in the wall street journal and on the huffington post...and this book did not disappoint. i found the juxtaposition between historical figures and modern day celebrities was genius....making us (the reader) think about how and why celebrities act like they do, and how we turn celebrities into deities. there were some parts that droned on a bit, but the overall observations were quite amusing, interesting and thought provoking. perhaps being interested in both pop culture and historical figures helped when reading this book. from topics like reality tv, britney spears shaving her head, to madonna'a sexuality and angelina jolie...tom payne delves into an interesting study of celebrity, rumor, fame and how the public and private lives of famous people can historically repeat itself....

  11. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I had a review of this and then the internet froze up, losing it. So here's a (blunter) couple sentence sum-up: In this book, you'll find interesting tidbits about how the elements of fame haven't changed over the centuries. You need, however, a decently good knowledge of pop culture celebrity (including British), because the author doesn't often explain why X celebrity is famous, just that he/she is. Since, half the fun of celebrity pop culture itself is the recognition factor (the "it's that o I had a review of this and then the internet froze up, losing it. So here's a (blunter) couple sentence sum-up: In this book, you'll find interesting tidbits about how the elements of fame haven't changed over the centuries. You need, however, a decently good knowledge of pop culture celebrity (including British), because the author doesn't often explain why X celebrity is famous, just that he/she is. Since, half the fun of celebrity pop culture itself is the recognition factor (the "it's that one guy who was in that one movie"), this could greatly diminish the enjoyability of the book for those who aren't as pop-culture savvy.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I liked Fame best when it was talking about the classics and how they treated the topic of fame. I could have happily read more about that. I was expecting "classics" to mean classics of literature, but, in this book, it referred to both ancient cultures and their writings, as well as more recent writings (relatively recent, meaning not ancient). I didn't recognize many of the modern celebs Payne used as examples, so my interest waned in those parts. I considered googling the names to see who th I liked Fame best when it was talking about the classics and how they treated the topic of fame. I could have happily read more about that. I was expecting "classics" to mean classics of literature, but, in this book, it referred to both ancient cultures and their writings, as well as more recent writings (relatively recent, meaning not ancient). I didn't recognize many of the modern celebs Payne used as examples, so my interest waned in those parts. I considered googling the names to see who they were, but I couldn't dredge up enough interest in them to bother.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Another of my favorite themes--there was never a Golden Age when we were less tacky than we are now. Classicist and literary critic Payne connects the dots between royal children and Suri Cruise, ostracism and eviction from the Big Brother House, Augustus' family on the Ara Pacis and Celebrity Rehab. The irony, of course, is that he uses mostly British examples, and although I spend a lot of time there, I still don't know who most of these people are--proving once again that fame is subjective, Another of my favorite themes--there was never a Golden Age when we were less tacky than we are now. Classicist and literary critic Payne connects the dots between royal children and Suri Cruise, ostracism and eviction from the Big Brother House, Augustus' family on the Ara Pacis and Celebrity Rehab. The irony, of course, is that he uses mostly British examples, and although I spend a lot of time there, I still don't know who most of these people are--proving once again that fame is subjective, fleeting and as regional as your little town's version of a Hercules legend.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michele Minor

    This is a study of how fame today is similar to fame in classic works of literature. There are some places where I didn't know some of the present day celebrities since the author is British and he uses British references. Overall though he does make some good points about being a celebrity today. He also described how people became famous in ancient times. This is a study of how fame today is similar to fame in classic works of literature. There are some places where I didn't know some of the present day celebrities since the author is British and he uses British references. Overall though he does make some good points about being a celebrity today. He also described how people became famous in ancient times.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Alison

    Thank you GoodReads for this book. This was an interesting book. I think that I would have finished it more quickly if it hadn't been for receiving it during the holidays. It shows how current celebrities and historic figures are loved and hated, often at the same time by the same people. I think that I will reread this at some point in order to get more out of it. Thank you GoodReads for this book. This was an interesting book. I think that I would have finished it more quickly if it hadn't been for receiving it during the holidays. It shows how current celebrities and historic figures are loved and hated, often at the same time by the same people. I think that I will reread this at some point in order to get more out of it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I received this book through the First-Reads giveaway. I thought this was an interesting book comparing celebrities today to the way things were for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Not being one to pay attention to the celebrity hype, it was hard for me to follow some of the names that were being referenced. But it was interesting to read about how people need celebrities to follow.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tara

    Though I didn't always follow his train of thought, overall it was an interesting look at the way we construct fame and celebrity. It's definitely altered my thoughts about celebrity and how those people function our daily lives. The chapter about hair and the one about human sacrifice were particularly compelling. Can't wait to use some of this material for our next show. Though I didn't always follow his train of thought, overall it was an interesting look at the way we construct fame and celebrity. It's definitely altered my thoughts about celebrity and how those people function our daily lives. The chapter about hair and the one about human sacrifice were particularly compelling. Can't wait to use some of this material for our next show.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    In attempting to write an academic book about popular culture, Mr. Payne manages to alienate both audiences. While it addresses popular topics in mythical terms, the author fails to make the connection between pop icons and mythical heroes/heroines believable. Probably won't hold up on bookshelves or in syllabi. In attempting to write an academic book about popular culture, Mr. Payne manages to alienate both audiences. While it addresses popular topics in mythical terms, the author fails to make the connection between pop icons and mythical heroes/heroines believable. Probably won't hold up on bookshelves or in syllabi.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kristopher Swinson

    Some scant insight to be had, but primarily too sympathetic to the base and obscene elements.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    this book makes me feel less guilty about watching joan rivers during the awards season.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lee

    Enjoyable discursus upon ancient and modern (Western) celebrity, with a bunch of Classical references that I did, and modern British "sleb" references that I did not get. Enjoyable discursus upon ancient and modern (Western) celebrity, with a bunch of Classical references that I did, and modern British "sleb" references that I did not get.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    not on overdrive

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andreoid

  24. 5 out of 5

    Michael J. Wilson

  25. 4 out of 5

    Brad Jenks

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Holz

  27. 4 out of 5

    John

  28. 4 out of 5

    Franz

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sofia Stenroos

  30. 4 out of 5

    Paula

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