Wednesday, November 06, 2013


I received a review copy of Virginia Postrel's latest book, The Power of Glamour and read it in one sitting.  At first, I didn't know what to make of it.  But, over a matter of days, I found myself going back and rereading sections, Googling some of her references, and then cogitating about it some more.

Her central thesis is that glamour is a form of visual rhetoric and should be treated as a subject as worthy of deeper analysis as verbal rhetoric.  Then she gives a historical tour of glamour through the ages beginning with the origin of the word (a spell cast on onlookers).  The rest of the book analyzes glamour by enumerating and illustrating the elements necessary to cast that spell.

Glamour is a lie.  Glamour projects a feeling of ease that is completely antithetical to the difficulty or impossibility of what it depicts.  Yet, the strident tones of Jezebel taking down depictions of glamour don't move the discussion forward.

Glamour is a difficult subject to tackle and this book is several years overdue because of it.  The organization of this book looks like parts of it were shuffled and reshuffled.  I found some terms used .before. they were defined.  But, like any serious work of scholarship, the book includes an useful index containing all the unfamiliar terms.  The page where each term is defined is italicized for easy look up.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photos to illustrate the author's points.  I learned a lot more than I expected from the book and expect to read and reread it.

In the end, Postrel concludes that glamour can be a positive force if it compels us to take action toward a desirable goal.  That is, glamour photos of models and actresses starved to near death or photoshopped to change their proportions are bad if I take them literally and take up an extreme diet.  But, if they prod me to take a smaller piece of cake and to hit the gym more often, then they have produced a positive effect.  This book gives you the tools to decode glamour and use it positively in your own life.

The next time Iris says something that could have come straight out of Jezebel, I plan to give her this book so she can read a more thorough and balanced study of visual rhetoric.  I would be interested in further books on the subject from other viewpoints.

The book also introduced me to the word, sprezzatura, which I learned from Wikipedia means "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

Of course, real life isn't like that. We have to practice, practice and practice some more before we can make anything look easy. By coincidence, Elizabeth Perry posted her TEDx talk about the importance of practicing things you are bad at the same week that I read Virginia Postrel's book. The talk and the book should be enjoyed in tandem and with your children.

At first, I was going to review the book and give it away to readers of this blog. But, after I read it, I decided to keep it and you will have to buy your own copy. I received no payment for this review other than the review copy.  BTW, Virginia's TEDx talk about glamour is old and does not reflect her current views on the subject and what she described in the book.

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