One-Minute Book Reviews

March 23, 2007

Ranking the 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived From Prometheus to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,General,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:06 am

Nancy Drew and Archie Bunker meet Hamlet and Pandora in a guide to fictional power players

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Culture, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History. By Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. Harper, 317 pp., $13.95 paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Publishers have a phrase for books like The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived – “an impulse buy at the bookstore.” Boy, do they know me. I can’t remember what I was looking when I saw this book near the cash register at a bookstore. Whatever it was, it’s vanished from my mind last week’s episode of Wife Swap. But I keep dipping into this dish of literary tacos with mild salsa.

Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter had the idea of selecting and ranking the 101 most influential people who never existed, giving you a few pages of sprightly text about each and defining “people” loosely enough to encompass King Kong (No. 74), Joe Camel (No. 78) and The Cat in the Hat (No. 79). This concept is nothing new. You can find similar books by searching Amazon for the “dictionary + fictional characters” or in the reference sections at many bookstores.

What is new is the packaging of the book, a trade paperback with a conversational tone instead of the usual professorial door-stopper. So The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived could be a handy book for, say, baby boomers who are having trouble explaining to their grandchildren exactly why Archie Bunker (No. 32) was so different from other sitcom characters of his day. It wasn’t just that he called his liberal son-in-law “Meathead”:

“Archie expressed what ultraconservative white people said behind closed doors on topics such as rape and poverty (the victims were to blame), homosexuality (perverts), militia groups (real Americans), welfare recipients (cheats who took hard-earned money out of his pocket) , college students (all pinko Communists), and support for the Vietnam War (real patriotism).”

Lazar, Karlan and Salter offer no narrative thread to connect the entries, so their essays tend to lack a context. Most readers under 40 might find it easier to fathom how Archie’s bigotry ever made it to prime time if they knew that he descended spiritually from Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) on The Honeymooners, who was always threatening to belt his wife. (“One of these days, Alice – pow! – right in the kisser.”) You could also argue that, for that reason, Kramden and not Bunker belonged on the list. But part of the fun of this book is comparing your list with the authors’ rankings of characters like Hamlet (No. 5), Pandora (No. 47), Prometheus (No. 46), Nancy Drew (No. 62) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (No. 44). Anybody want to argue that Perry Mason (No. 86) had less clout than Ally McBeal?

Best line: About the Marlboro Man (No. 1): “Advertising Age picked the Marlboro Man as the most powerful brand image of the twentieth century.” Why? Philip Morris had marketed Marlboros as a women’s brand that was “Mild As May”: “Marlboro’s new image boosted its sales four-fold from 1955 to 1957, and by 1972 it had become the top cigarette brand both in the nation and the world.” The original Marlboro Man and two other actors used for the role all died from lung cancer or emphysema.

Worst line: About the Loch Ness Monster (No. 56): Nessie is “the most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.” The most popular tourist attraction in Scotland has for years been Edinburgh Castle www.statistics.gov.uk/Scottish+Visitor+Attraction+Monitor. Nessie isn’t even among the top ten on some lists. The rest of this section is also weak. As proof of the nonexistence of the monster, the authors say that the most famous photo of it turned out to be a hoax. What about all the sonar and other scientific reports that have shown that the creature never existed?

Recommended if … you’re not looking for a scholarly reference book but for the views of enthusiastic amateurs who get some facts wrong and serve up essays of inconsistent quality. Some entries are well-written, while others read like rough drafts.

Editors: Carolyn Marino, Jennifer Civiletto and Wendy Lee

Published: October 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2 Comments »

  1. How’s this idea for an impulse buy? The Twenty Five Most Moving Passages Ever Written: From Hugo to Hemingway, words that will make you cry. (I’m just thinking out loud.)

    Comment by heehler — March 23, 2007 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

  2. Here’s a profoundly moving passage excerpted from E. Wharton’s Fighting France. It won’t make you cry, but if the last two lines don’t give you a serious case of goose bumps, you’re not paying attention:

    I remember the morning when our butcher’s boy brought the news that the first German flag had been hung out on the balcony of the Ministry of War. Now I thought, the Latin will boil over! And I wanted to be there to see. I hurried down the quiet rue de Martignac, turned the corner of the Place Sainte Clotilde, and came on an orderly crowd filling the street before the Ministry of War. The crowd was so orderly that the few pacific gestures of the police easily cleared a way for passing cabs, and for the military motors perpetually dashing up. It was composed of all classes, and there were many family groups, with little boys straddling their mothers’ shoulders, or lifted up by the policemen when they were too heavy for their mothers. It is safe to say that there was hardly a man or woman of that crowd who had not a soldier at the front; [Page 28] and there before them hung the enemy’s first flag–a splendid silk flag, white and black and crimson, and embroidered in gold. It was the flag of an Alsatian regiment–a regiment of Prussianized Alsace. It symbolized all they most abhorred in the whole abhorrent job that lay ahead of them; it symbolized also their finest ardour and their noblest hate, and the reason why, if every other reason failed, France could never lay down arms till the last of such flags was low. And there they stood and looked at it, not dully or uncomprehendingly, but consciously, advisedly, and in silence; as if already foreseeing all it would cost to keep that flag and add to it others like it; forseeing the cost and accepting it. There seemed to be men’s hearts even in the children of that crowd, and in the mothers whose weak arms held them up. So they gazed and went on, and made way for others like them, who gazed in their turn and went on too. All day the [Page 29] crowd renewed itself, and it was always the same crowd, intent and understanding and silent, who looked steadily at the flag, and knew what its being there meant. That, in August, was the look of Paris.

    Comment by heehler — March 23, 2007 @ 10:20 pm | Reply


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