Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph, and Disaster by Dana Brown
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 22, 2022
Genres: Debut, Non-fiction, Memoir, Pop culture
Good morning! Sometimes I read a book and love it so much that I agonize over the words to review it. Then, there is the more unusual experience of a book that is such easy, delicious reading words are fighting their way out of my brain and onto the page. That’s the case with today’s book, Dilettante by Dana Brown. Brown worked at Vanity Fair for 25 years. This is his memoir and it’s as fabulous, interesting, and well-written as the magazine itself.
Brown was an aimless college dropout working at a famous restaurant in Manhattan as a barback. It was the early 1990s when, after months of minor social interactions, Graydon Carter, the newly appointed editor of Vanity Fair, hired him to be his assistant. From that point onward Brown’s career trajectory was linked to Carter’s success in making Vanity Fair one of the most widely read and talked about magazines in America. Yet, it was no meteoric rise for Brown, who freely acknowledges his shortcomings in Dilettante’s pages.
It’s this humility, relayed without shame, but as simple fact that is one of the most enticing aspects of Dilettante. The world of publishing, whether it’s books or magazines, has always been a bastion of elitism. To not only enter, but to succeed, education and connections are needed. Not to mention money, because for as glittering a shrine as it appears to outsiders, publishing doesn’t pay. Assistants can’t earn a living wage for NYC so there often has to be family money to pay the bills. Not only was Brown broke, he left college without graduating, and knew no one in NYC. Even more egregious he knew nothing about pop culture—trends, fashion, celebrities, food, the wealthy. All he had was an intense work ethic, the kind that never says no to any assignment and keeps longer hours than anyone else in the office.
That last sentence sounds horribly dull so I’m happy to report that Dilettante is anything but dull. Brown is barely 21 when he starts at Vanity Fair so working 10 hours a day still left 10 hours for partying, with sleep as an afterthought. And Brown loved to party. Working at Vanity Fair gave him the keys to a kingdom that anyone who aspires to live in NYC would sell their soul for. And, yes, I’m thinking of myself when I lived in Manhattan many decades ago. He was the person closest to Carter, one of the most influential people in publishing. Clubs, restaurants, events, after-parties, after-after parties threw open their doors to him. Actually, in the early days he was often the person at the door making sure only the right people got in. In 25 years he edited the writing about many of the most seminal events in America, from the Simpson murder trial to 9/11. And finally, the ushering in of the age of digital and its impact on publishing as newsstand copies, good writing, and the facts were exchanged for clicks, traffic, and a tenuous alignment with the truth.
The office was being overrun by rows and rows of silent, headphoned, invisaligned, and Warby Perkered twentysomethings on bouncy balls slurping slop in tiny cubicles, tapping away at their keyboards.
It’s possible you’ve gotten this far and are mystified as to why I adored this book. This means we’ve never met. For all my librarianship and bookishness, I’ve also always been obsessed with fashion and pop culture. If the superficialities of those things are of no interest to you, then Dilettante is not a book you need to read. Brown’s life is the quintessential NYC story, one that hardly exists anymore: kid with nothing but a dream goes on to reach the heights of his chosen field, living an aspirational life. What makes Dilettante stand out so much in modern day society is that he did it all on his own, with no experience. Just as there was no one bankrolling him, he taught himself how to write well, how to discern a good story, and how to edit. He worked harder than everyone else, without any sense of entitlement. That mindset, accompanied by page after page of stellar, pithy, witty writing, and behind-the-scenes details of what it takes to put together a magazine, is what makes Dilettante one of my all-time favorite memoirs.
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