Scandal is a sort of cultural currency, grounding narratives to their place and time. Those contemporary concerns—whether significant or petty in the grand scheme of things—are the backdrop against which our human dramas play out, and the texture that marks the date of a literary work.
Read the last Popdose on Heather Donahue's 'Growgirl.'
You can read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and grasp intuitively its themes of sexual deception, class anxiety and the uncertainties of memory. You’ll need footnotes, though, to get you up speed on the Dreyfus Affair that so engages and polarizes the many characters.
Now Hallie Fryd has turned those footnotes into a book. Scandalous! 50 Shocking Events You Should Know About (So You Can Impress Your Friends) is a slick, informative rundown of 100 years of bad behavior—sort of “A People’s History of the 20th Century: The Juicy Bits.” It’s an extended version of that curious staple of Web journalism, the listicle—the kind of thing you might find in the pages of mental_floss, the successor to populist reference works like An Incomplete Education and The Book of Lists. And like those earlier works, Scandalous! should be irresistible to its target young adult audience—as irresistible as scandal itself.
Scandalous! covers 50 key events, starting with 1906, in its parade of human indignity and shame. For each entry we’re treated to a one-sentence strapline, a two-page write-up of the scandal in question, quotes from the principals, a couple of paragraphs on the aftermath and sidebars that aim to place the events in a sociological context. It’s a bathroom book, in short, designed to be read piecemeal and in brief sittings.
Some of these scandals will be familiar to most grown-ups, and even most teenagers—the Clinton impeachment, Watergate and the Clarence Thomas hearings are all present, and will likely send high-schoolers back to their U.S. History textbooks to learn more. Others are more obscure, but still highly relevant. We’ve all heard a lot about Ponzi schemes in the last few years, but Scandalous! will, for many readers young and old, be their first introduction to Charles Ponzi himself.
Whether or not knowing this stuff will impress your friends is open to debate. But it will definitely come in handy for kids looking to be taken seriously by grown-ups.
It’s possible to argue with some of Fryd’s broad conclusions—her big takeaway from the O.J. Simpson trial, for instance, is the way that reactions to the verdict exposed the lingering racial divides in American society, rather than the corrosive effects of fame and privilege on the supposedly impartial justice system that produced that verdict in the first place—but her write-ups are marvels of concision. When covering so much material in such an abbreviated way—each item takes just four pages—glibness is something of an occupational hazard. Fryd turns it into a virtue, though, keeping the tone breezy whether she’s writing about financial mismanagement, sexual shenanigans or bloody murder.
The book cuts off in 2000, with the Bush v. Gore lawsuit—and perhaps that’s where it had to end. The increasing ubiquity of the Web has fundamentally changed the nature of gossip and scandal. With sites like Gawker and TMZ always hungry for stories, and with every phone including a video camera, there’s little chance of bad behavior staying private for long. But the cycle of discovery, the rush to judgment, saturation and reconstruction has become absurdly compressed.
Only a year ago, Charlie Sheen was having a public meltdown via video logs, and for about two weeks it was all anybody could talk about. Do you remember how that felt, to be alive in that moment? Me neither. So much has happened since.
Jack Feerick is Critic-at-Large for Popdose. That’s what he’s telling you, anyway; but oh, if you people knew the truth...