Book Review – Dead Famous

Hello hello and welcome or welcome back to my little bookish corner of the internet. Today I’m sharing my review of Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen, a non-fiction history book by Greg Jenner.

Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise. Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.

In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight. DEAD FAMOUS is a surprising, funny, and fascinating exploration of both a bygone age and how we came to inhabit our modern, fame obsessed society.

Dead Famous totally took me aback with how much I found myself enjoying it. I’m one of those that doens’t know much about the celebrities that grace the face of most magazines these days (no shame to those who do – I just don’t!), but there are names throughout history we all know. I was curious to see just how many of those names throughout time I might know myself – but really, I ended up learning far too many more I’d never heard of before.

Ancient history tends to be my area of fascination, yet I was absolutely sucked in by talk of theatre stars and the origins of celebrity. The very fact that there was debate over what being a celebrity is, and how that term has come into use, was completely absorbing. I had no idea it was such a debated thing, and it’s been something that has played on my mind in quiet moments ever since. It’s such a clever question, or selection of questions. “What is a celebrity? When did the age of celebrity begin?”

I’ve never been so intrigued by something so normally outside of my area of study. I absolutely could not put this book down. One of the things I love about non-fiction books, especially history books, are picking up little facts that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else, and I can bombard people with them when my brain decides that they should know Things.

A few years ago, Greg was kind enough to join us to discuss Dead Famous in a book group chat I was an admin of at the time. My friend, Bee, ran that group with dedication and pride until she died and I felt a special connection to her reading this book, as I could still hear her laughing with him as I read it. She would, of course, tell me off for being so damn sentimental, as any of her other friends reading this would know. But I’m glad I read this book, and read it now.

Thanks for stopping by for this review. If you’re looking for some non-fiction, or for something completely different to suck you in, I can’t recommend this book more highly.


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