Fame, By Tom Payne

How is Britney like Joan of Arc? A classics scholar takes aim at celebrity culture through the ages

It has never been easier to be famous. With a Facebook profile or a YouTube clip we can present an image of ourselves to be consumed by people we do not know and never will. But, as the popularity of talent contests shows, our longing for proper, Marilyn Monroe-level fame hasn't gone away.

It's a phenomenon that fascinates Tom Payne, a former Telegraph journalist-turned-classics master, who dissects it in this, his first book. Fame neatly marries his two jobs, comparing and contrasting the celebs of today with the famous figures of the ancient world. His thesis is that fame has always played a central part in civilisation, and it's no bad thing that we want to elevate some members of society.

When you spend five minutes thinking about it, he's right. Of course there have always been famous people, and our so-called obsession with celebrities is as old as the cult of saints. But five minutes is about all you need, not 288 pages. It's hard to know who this book is for. Maybe Payne is unecessarily trying to make the classics "relevant". If you already have an interest in the classics you might buy this book as a romp through the favourite old stories, but the fun seems to have been left out and too often it reads like a celebrity-studies textbook.

Books are supposed to inform or entertain – preferably both. Fame fails to do either. Which is surprising, as Tom Payne is clearly an interesting man, and no doubt an original and entertaining teacher. Having spoken to those who know him, I gather he is supremely clever and funny. The trouble with Fame is that the joke of putting Britney Spears and Joan of Arc into the same sentence isn't funny enough to sustain a whole book.

A lot of people admire Alain de Botton, who has written successful books on themes such as love, work and travel. But he doesn't tell us anything new so much as present our own thoughts back to us in a smart, Swiss, clutter-free way, so that we feel reassured and are happy to agree with him. Tom Payne's book tries to do something similar. It is written clearly and concisely; the problem is that, after a while, it is boring to read well-known tabloid tales woven with stories from 1066 and All That, even if the connections are intelligently made. There are no laugh-out-loud jokes, merely the underlying humorous concept on which one suspects the publishers commissioned the book – a classics master writing about celebrities. By the time he is thanking his Polish au pair for providing an excuse to buy Grazia every week, I think I had just about got the point.

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