In Earnest


Our Daily Correspondent

Edelfelt_Läsande_kvinna Reading Woman 1885

Albert Edelfelt, Läsande Kvinna (Reading Woman), 1885

“Every time I buy a book here, it changes my life,” the man told me earnestly. He was not the bookseller, but he was minding the stand on Broadway and Seventy-Third Street while the proprietor got a fruit juice from the nearby cart. He clearly wanted to do right by his friend, the owner, in his brief absence, and I was eager to help him. There was not much that appealed to me, but I finally found a hardcover, lavishly praised the interim salesman to the returned proprietor, and handed him the five-dollar bill that would, he remarked, cover the cost of the mango drink he was now sipping.

I did not really think that The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook (1992) would change my life. If I’d thought more about it, I might have hoped to share the book with a few likeminded friends, where we’d marvel at the dated food styling and speculate about the quality of “Liza’s Salade de Provence,” which involves corn, raw mushrooms, pink grapefruit, and hearts of palm. In short, I guess you could say what interest I had was ironic.

But then I sat down at home and opened it, and I was reading it, and the act of reading—the process of assimilating letters and sounds and translating that into meaning—is not ironic, is it? In fact, in the absence of other people, there isn’t much irony at all. I might have tweeted something about Joan Collins’s menu planning—“Extravagance is the only way when it comes to buying beautiful dresses and to making salads”—or shared a picture of the “Smoked Salmon Bruschetta” that was allegedly a specialty of Elle Macpherson’s. But instead, I just read, and thought, and maybe smiled a little at some things, but not at anyone’s expense. We were in it together.

There is nothing left to say about irony, really. Nothing that hasn’t been said before, and better. Not after David Foster Wallace, not after the last twenty years. A recent Fast Company article went so far as to suggest that irony fatigue is propelling, in part, new “sadvertising” trends, designed to tug at viewers’ heartstrings rather than—well, I can’t say “funny bones.”

Anyone who has been a teenager knows that negativity and its derivatives are a certain kind of social glue. Powerful, potentially intoxicating, and, to overextend the metaphor, noxious when abused. Conversely, maybe solitude kills irony; there is certainly nothing more truly earnest. I’m not even sure we can be funny when alone—not without, at least, some distanced part of ourselves as audience.

I will surely show my cookbook to people, and maybe we’ll even do a themed meal of Valentino’s risotto, and the “Banana Soft ‘Tacos’” served by Texas hostess Caroline Hunt to visiting royalty. But secretly I will feel bad about it, because I will know that when I read about Dame Barbara Cartland’s pink-hued ninetieth birthday party, it was without any mockery, and that when she said, “anything to do with love makes me happy,” it was hard to second-guess.