With Microsoft Word running and a bit of the desktop peeping through, you can easily have about 50 icons on the screen in front of you. But these aren't really icons. The term "glyphs", used by some computer design experts, is a less slack metaphorical borrowing from the language of art. Over the past decade, the word "icon" has had all the shape washed out of it. For hundreds of years it meant a sacred image. Now it means a pin-up, or any kind of symbol.
So it's not surprising that Bold Type's "Icons" issue does little to sharpen our understanding of what it is to be a contemporary icon. Also, since it is brought to us by the Bantam Dell Doubleday conglomerate, its choice of contributors is limited to current authors from the BDD stables. Fortunately, it comes down the right side of the fuzzy line that separates advertisements from editorial.
The core of the copy is a series of book extracts, but each comes with author interviews or essays, photos and audio files of readings. The package based on Laurence Bergreen's biography of Louis Armstrong gives you a chance to hear Satchmo play as you read. What a wonderful world.
Buried in the "Back of the Book" section is one of the sharpest pieces in the issue, an extract from Edvard Radzinsky's biography of Stalin. It has the snappiness of gangster writing or gossip, but never loses its respect for the seriousness of its subject. Uncle Joe also has a better claim on iconhood than almost any other modern figure, his likeness still cherished by thousands of faithful Russians.
The cover stars are Cold War figures too, John Wayne and the atom bomb physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who feature in books by Dan Barden and Joseph Kanon respectively. Kanon's Los Alamos is a thriller about early nuclear secrecy; a more accurate title for Barden's John Wayne: A Novel would appear to be Me, My Father and John Wayne. The extract is all fiction, though; a wry dialogue between a dying Wayne and Henry Fonda.
Then there's Gary Indiana, working his favourite stretch of the waterfront, which is largely populated by homosexual dope fiends. The essay that accompanies the extract from his latest novel, Resentment, centres upon Charles Sobhraj, who drugged and murdered tourists in Bangkok. Indiana mentions spending several hours with Sobhraj, yet he neglects to say a word about what passed between them. He reveals more about his half-hour with "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi, a "rather disagreeable, tiny woman" who is "illiterate, not at all pretty, and demands little gifts".
In a diary of a visit to her family in India, Slate's copy editor Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan suggests that the next bandit to achieve international recognition will be a South Indian outlaw named Veerappan. He already got round to posing barechested for magazine photographers a few years ago, an icon from the tips of his handlebar moustaches to the muzzle of his ancient Lee-Enfield rifle. Give it a few more years, and dacoits will have their own Web sites.