Monday, January 2, 2012

101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived—Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, & Jeremy Salter

It is not accidental that Santa Claus is one of few characters associated with Western culture that were allowed to persist in Communist countries. Consider that both Santa Claus and Karl Marx have bushy white beards and believe in giving people what they want without regard for cost. And Santa Claus always wears a red outfit, the symbolic color of Communism. (40)

I was seriously disappointed with this book. It was another Half Price Books find, and I actually thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. Our society uses art as a means of expression, oftentimes hoping to incite change or even just bring attention to a particular social or political issue, so it would make sense that many of our "fictional" literary characters would be inspirational in that regard.

However, about three pages into the book, I realized that, while a great idea, it was incredibly poorly executed. Let's start with the things that I liked, because there's really only one of them: I liked how the characters were split up into categories, like Myths, Legends, Americana, etc. I suppose if I had to pick one more thing that I enjoyed, it would be the initial explanation of the process for choosing the characters. While not essential to the book, it was great information to keep in mind while reading, especially when looking forward at the list and thinking, "Why did they consider that person influential?"

That being said, this election process was elaborated on several more times during what were called "Interludes," short chapters between the themes. These were not necessary or interesting to read. While painfully obvious that the authors were attempting to be humorous, in these interludes as well as throughout the rest of the book, these additions only served as annoyances and often lead to incredulity on my part. (See below with regard to specific quotes.)

The sad thing is, some of the actual historical information about the characters - Santa Claus, King Arthur, Cupid and Venus - I would have considered interesting and enlightening, but these small learning moments were overshadowed by the consistent irksome feeling I got from the commentary.

For example, the quote above - I read that and thought to myself, "Seriously?" And maybe it wasn't. Maybe I wasn't meant to take that seriously. Given the tone of the article, it definitely seemed to be an actual comparison. Yes, Karl Marx and Santa Claus are pretty much the same person. And communism is absolutely all about giving people whatever they want. If I recall correctly, those are the first lines of the Communist Manifesto. (In case you needed some guidance there, I was being sarcastic in those last few sentences. In fact, the comparison of Marx to Santa Claus is strained at best - Santa Claus is communist because he wears read, and communism is most certainly NOT about giving people whatever they want.)

Some of my other favourite what I call, "Um, what?!" moments:
  • Quote from article about Pandora: If Pandora were alive today, she would find herself served with countless lawsuits. No matter that she doesn't have deep pockets - or, for that matter, any pockets. Our penchant for accusing, blaming, and then suing someone for a problem for which we don't want to accept responsibility has become the stuff of future legends. (While I completely agree that our society, especially American society, has become entirely too litigious, this commentary has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with Pandora, or her importance as a literary/mythical character.)
  • The article about Buck from Jack London's Call of the Wild was written in the voice of one of the author's dogs. Hilarious - NOT.
  • The article about The Cat in the Hat: the authors were presumptuous enough to write in rhyme, attempting the style of the much-loved Dr. Seuss, alleging to have received said rhyme in a letter from the Cat in the Hat demanding addition to the list. It feel far short, and they should have known - you don't mess with Dr. Seuss and you don't try to imitate.

I think I would really enjoy this book were it to be constructed by other authors, perhaps ones who were inclined to write more academically.