Monday, June 18, 2007

Book Review - Mr. Confidential

I just finished Samuel Bernstein's Mr. Confidential, the story of the rise and fall of "Confidential" magazine.

Bernstein writes well, keeping the tone light and amusing, but this is also a drawback. Like when I had to read that stupidly lopsided Mountains Beyond Mountains book for my old job, this book offers an overwhelmingly positive portrait of Bob Harrison, the publisher of "Confidential", as if Bernstein didn't speak to a single person who didn't like him. The Amazon review says it's an "unflinching portrait", but it does flinch, coming right out several times to say that no one was ever hurt by an article in "Confidential", and that it was all in good fun.

I’m innately suspicious of any biography that offers a one sided portrait. Nobody is a saint all the time. Saint Francis probably kicked a dog once when no one was looking, and Joan of Arc probably snuck twelve items into the medieval equivalent of the Ten Items or Less line, but that doesn’t make them bad people. Writing about anyone as if they did no wrong (or, in the case of Martha, Inc., as if they did no right) dehumanizes them and prevents the reader from relating to them. They stop being a person and become a character or, worse, a caricature, and biographies should treat their subject matter with more respect.

Back to the book at hand, two Harrison detractors are mentioned, but the author goes out of his way to make sure they don’t seem credible. There’s an entire chapter on how one of them became an alcoholic and murdered his wife and then himself, and Bernstein accuses the other of lying about so many other things that the reader is left to conclude that she must be lying about Harrison, too. That’s fine for a puff piece, the kind of thing you might read in “US Weekly” or even, if it still existed, “Confidential”, it’s pretty biased for a book that claims to be objective.

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