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IF QUENTIN CRISP and Donald Carroll had lived in the 14th century, they might have practiced alchemy. As 20th century analysts of human personality, they remain as far from refining the perfect drop of behavioral wisdom as medieval alchemists were from producing gold. To them, possessing style is a lot like belonging to a finals club: After fussing and fiddling with your personality and habits, you are somehow elevated to a new position in life. What Crisp and Carroll try to demonstrate is a method for turning style into substance. Can they really hope to succeed in proving that black is white?
The authors omit an explanation of why anyone would want to acquire style. It must seem very obvious to them, or very embarrassing. The answer is, of course, that this is a book for those with no substance to their lives--nothing interesting to fill up their empty, boring days. The implication is that once you have style, you will become fulfilled, and those dull, empty days, like the dirt spots in the yard, will become lush and full.
An investigation of who seeks style, and why, might have given the book a little more substance. It's likely that students already have too much substance in life to bother filling up their days with "style." On the other hand, students might be motivated to crack this thin volume to find out just what is responsible for that empty social calender on the wall. This, then, is the most obvious motive for reading Doing It With Style: making friends and getting dates.
IGNORING THE LARGER and more interesting questions, and failing to recognize or denying the black-is-white "style-is-substance" proposition, Crisp and Carroll theorize that the way to become a stylist is to "be yourself, but on purpose." Protect the sacred well-spring of your uniqueness, so to speak. Not only protect but trumpet forth to the world "all your peculiarly unique characteristics; develop and attract all possible attention to yourself, as a distinct and singular persona." Not only will you be able to acquire style this way, you will be able to acquire it easily in 13 lessons, including dressing, speaking, eating and drinking, mating and marrying, creating a home and family, performing your job, entertaining your friends, confusing your enemies, being poor, being rich, being shady, and being old, all "with style."
After each chapter, the authors put together short "style quotient tests," so that "the reader can determine exactly how much style he or she has to begin with." These tests are supposed to amuse as well as instruct, but if this is supposed to be a Preppy Handbook rip-off, it falls far short of the light and self-mocking tone that makes the Handbook readable.
For instance, in "Creating a Family with Style," Crisp and Carroll ask, "If you are a stylist you will buy pets for your children because: 1) it will give them a sense of responsibility; 2) it will save you having to play with them; 3) you want the pets for yourself; or 4) you want an alternative food supply in case of an economic depression." Funny, right? There are actually answers! They are ranked to indicate how much style you have. Here they are: 1) 0 pts. 2) 3 pts. 3) 2 pts. 4) 1 pt. The "funny" answers seem to be the right ones. Or in "Mating and Marrying with Style": "If you are a stylist, you will marry very often because: a) you are trying to get it right; b) you are trying to get in the papers; c) you are trying to get even with your ex-spouses; d) you are trying to get presents." Answers: a) 1, b) 3, c) 0, d) 2.
The absolutely serious manner in which the authors go about propounding the most pointless ideas leads to pity for lives wasted in such vacuous banality:
But the unattractiveness of the sex act is just one of the problems it poses for the stylist. Another is that it is very difficult to be naked with style. The sum is diminished by the sight of the parts. Also, for sex--conventional sex, that is--you require a partner, which makes it a group activity. And a stylist avoids anything that requires membership of a group, even if it's a group of only two. Nor does the sexual act itself allow much scope for the expression of individuality, because in whatever version it's performed it is still predetermined by anatomy; it always comes down to the question of what goes where.
This book does wile away an hour or two in a useless, harmless sort of way. It's doubtful that it will convert anyone, but it could make a nice hard-bound supplement to that magazine rack in the bathroom.
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