Fame and the echo chamber
We’re all vulnerable to settling into echo chambers – being happiest reading and listening to those whose opinions we already agree with, even if we know it isn’t good for our mental stimulus. But are we also guilty of falling into a different kind of echo chamber, one that means we only listen to famous people?
Fame is a dangerous concept in a multi-media world. There was a time when the only famous people were those who had earned fame by being powerful, admirable or diabolical – kings, queens, presidents, generals, pioneers, groundbreakers, notorious criminals etc. These days fame is often achieved just by being a media personality, or an actor in a popular soap opera. The recent controversy over the pay of the BBC’s top stars makes the point – why should a newsreader earn half a million just for reading the news, especially if they can supplement that through lucrative after-dinner speeches, event openings and such like?
Worse still is the fact that a famous person can sell numerous copies of a biography or memoir, even if it isn’t very good. Book publishing is such a financially precarious business that only the books that are guaranteed to sell ever get to the consideration stage, and quality often doesn’t come into it. There’s almost a formula for a memoir – be famous, hold back one juicy story that can be used for serialisation, and the rest can be as dull as dishwater yet the book will still sell.
On my recent summer holiday I found myself reading two similar books. One was The Sound of Summer by Jim Maxwell, the other The Roving Eye by Richard Evans. Both are by sports journalists, both are memoirs, and I'd recommend both. Maxwell is the doyen of Australian radio cricket commentators, while Evans is a former news correspondent who became a leading writer, broadcaster and authority on tennis.
Both are a good read, but there is far more depth to Evans’ book. He talks about his stint in Cambodia during the Vietnam War and covering two US presidential elections (he was beaten up observing a riot during one, and was with Bobby Kennedy two days before he was shot in 1968). Even some of his sporting stories are heavily historic, like his coverage of the rebel cricket tour to South Africa that coincided with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, and he dated Carol Thatcher while her mother was British prime minister.
Maxwell’s is a gentle book which nicely mirrors the pace of five-day cricket through which he makes his name. Some of it is exciting, fascinating and moving, while other passages are just his ruminations which you read in a low-key manner until something more gripping pops up.
There’s no question which book will sell better, and it has nothing to do with quality or depth. Maxwell is a name in cricket-mad Australia, and cricket fans there have lapped it up. By contrast Evans is a solid, thoughtful, behind-the-scenes journalist without much of a public profile. In fact people are more likely to mix him up with another person of the same name than to say “Oh I must buy Richard Evans’ latest book.”
I confess I count Richard as a friend and I encouraged him to write The Roving Eye, so I’m not entirely neutral in this. But that doesn’t affect the point I’m making, which is that we ought to determine what we read by the quality of the writing and the ideas we would benefit from engaging with. Instead we generally choose our books by how well known the writer is. It’s a recipe for mental stagnation every bit as damaging as the echo chamber of reading only our favourite newspaper, and not good for understanding the thinking behind ideas we may disagree with but which affect our everyday lives.