25 Books to Read Before You Die

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Saturday, September 7th, 2002


How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

by Toby Young

A review by C. P. Farley

In the late nineties, Toby Young emigrated to New York from London to accept a job at Vanity Fair. For young Toby, this was a dream come true. Not only was the editor of Vanity Fair one of his idols (Graydon Carter was co-founder of irreverent, outlandish Spy, Young's favorite magazine), but Young had a full-on Tiger Beat-style obsession for American celebrity culture. He didn't last long. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is an extended explanation why: 1) He couldn't adjust himself to, or, in the end, have any respect for, the culture of celebrity journalism in New York, and 2) Toby Young is a first-class wanker.

I'll tackle those in reverse order. During the years Young spent in New York, by day trying to make a place for himself at Vanity Fair and by night attempting to manipulate his way into the world of New York's movers and shakers, he made a remarkable number of monumentally stupid, pathetic, and downright offensive blunders. For example, on his first day of work, he showed up at the Condé Nast offices wearing "vintage Levis" and a "Hanes XL T-shirt that reproduced a Modern Review cover featuring a bare-chested Keanu Reeves and the strapline: 'Young, Dumb and Full of Come.'" On another occasion, he sent a stripper gram to a fellow employee on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. And when he finally landed a plush assignment, interviewing Nathan Lane for a Vanity Fair profile, he began the interview by asking Lane if he was Jewish. After he refused to answer, Young moved on to his real question: "Are you gay?" Young was even less savvy with New York's women. He actually attempted to impress American "Bettys" by having the prefix "Hon" (short for "Honorable") added to his VISA card.

Most of the book is a catalog of Young's various faux pas and frat boy high jinx, which he plays for self-deprecating laughs. Many readers will find the book funny (though, admittedly, this one didn't), but I suspect most will also wonder just why Graydon Carter put up with him as long as he did. Or perhaps they'll be asking themselves how on earth Toby Young came by his soccer hooligan manners. Surprisingly, Young is entitled to that honorific on his VISA. He may act like the love child of a cockney tart, but Toby Young really is the son of a British Lord, and a prominent one at that. Michael Young, who coined the word meritocracy, is not only a prominent British intellectual, he was also one of the architects of the social revolution that forever altered British society after WWII.

In all fairness, Young does make an effort, here and there, to live up to his father's distinguished example. He lays a veneer of analysis over his broad comedy. And, in fact, this social criticism is the best part of the book. Before coming to the States, Young had more or less taken at face value the American mythology. What he finds is that we do a pretty good job of lying to ourselves.

According to Young, America is not burdened with overt class distinctions, but in reality our class system is more rigid — and less tolerable — than its much-criticized British counterpart. Though Americans accept without question that we live in the land of opportunity, it is actually easier to get ahead in Britain, as it is in pretty much every other Western democracy. And finally, though Americans make much of the First Amendment, we are far less willing to think for ourselves or to speak our own minds than the Brits: "I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America."

Young supports his opinions with quotes from a handful of more legitimate thinkers — Alexis de Tocqueville, Freud, his own father — as well as his own observations of the culture at Condé Nast (which he wittily dubs Condé Nasty). And though I'm sure Graydon Carter would argue that the most successful media magazine in the world is not created by self-important, vacuous, corrupt, and just plain dull people, nonetheless Young's observations have the sting of truth about them. Michael Young's comments after reading the first draft of his son's book have a bit of sting as well: "He was nice about it — 'very funny' — but not particularly enthusiastic. 'Why not write a more serious book?'"

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