For Morning Edition's feature "Word of Mouth," Daily Beast Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown joins NPR to talk about what she's been reading — and what's made an impression. This month, Brown has been thinking about chronicles of one's life — whether online, in diary form, or in a juicy, tell-all memoir.
'The Web Means the End of Forgetting'
Brown begins with "The Web Means the End of Forgetting," the cover story of the New York Times Magazine's July 25 issue. Jeffrey Rosen's article discusses how the Internet ensures that evidence of youthful indiscretions and other embarrassing incidents never totally disappears. This fact has potentially devastating repercussions.
"It is a scary vision that he paints, because he talks about how traumatic and dislocating it can become for society if there is no mechanism for forgetting," Brown says.
Take Stacy Snyder, for example. In 2006, the then-25-year-old was studying to get her teaching degree from the Millersville University School of Education. As Brown explains, Snyder "posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat [and] drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption 'Drunken Pirate.'"
When Millersville's dean discovered the photo, he was shocked to see Snyder apparently promoting drinking in a picture that could easily be found by her underage students. "And as a result," says Brown, "a few days before Snyder's scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. This is the kind of thing which I think is scary to people."
Rosen does go on to describe a few emerging technologies that offer potential remedies to this problem. Researchers at the University of Washington are developing software that will erase certain data after a specific sell-by date. As Brown explains it, this program will allow Web users to post whatever they want on various social media sites during their student years, then "press a button and have it disappear when [they] enter the workforce."
Then there's ReputationDefender, a firm founded by Harvard Law graduate Michael Fertik. ReputationDefender monitors the Web, contacting sites to ask them to take down items they determine to be detrimental to its clients. Brown admires Fertik, who tells Rosen that he believes "the right to new beginnings and the right to self-definition have always been among the most beautiful American ideals."
"I really think that's true," Brown says.
'The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane'
Next, Brown turns to a memoir written by Randall Lane, a Daily Beast editor at large. His book The Zeroes is a twist on the classic coming-of-age story. Brown calls it "kind of a naked Alice in Wonderland expose" that details the excesses of Wall Street in the halcyon days before the recession.
Before coming to the Daily Beast, Lane was the editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and Private Air magazines — publications that catered to a specific, wealthy banker clientele. "These magazines were just kind of there to feast on the advertising that came from all the excesses of these crazy hedge fund guys," Brown explains. Though Lane was not one of them, his position gave him the opportunity to watch their extravagant behavior firsthand. As Brown says, "He's got great stories about what it was like to frequent this group of people, where traders fly Lamborghinis around the world in the belly of a 747."
But don't think that The Zeroes is all about the failings of other people. Lane is candid enough to turn a critical eye on himself. Although "he could hardly believe what he was seeing," says Brown, he "enormously enjoyed his access to it."
Lane writes openly about how he "flamed out totally" when the recession finally hit — and how, "in the end, all his dealings and transactions with those guys always meant that he was personally stiffed." Brown respects her colleague's "great sense of humor about his own disasters in this world."
'Must You Go?'
Brown turns away from the excesses of The Zeroes for her last pick, a memoir written by a woman best known for writing about the lives of other people. Lady Antonia Fraser is the author of several celebrated biographies, including Mary Queen of Scots, The Wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette.
In her latest book, Fraser looks inward to write about her 33-year relationship with Harold Pinter. Brown remembers the sensational items that ran in British gossip columns when the news broke that Pinter and Fraser — both of whom were married when they first met — were having an affair.
Fraser's first husband was Hugh Fraser, a Scottish nobleman with whom she had six children. "Antonia had always had interesting love affairs on the side," Brown explains, "but they were always kept very quiet." She met Pinter at a dinner party her sister was throwing in 1975.
"It's an instant sort of chemical attraction between them," Brown recalls. "And at the end of the night, she goes back into the room to say goodbye to him, and you see the fatefulness of the encounters."
When Fraser approached Pinter to say farewell, he turned to her and replied, "Must you go?" And even though Fraser had dozens of reasons to leave — in Brown's words, she must have been thinking about "the carpool tomorrow morning with the six kids, the book I'm writing, the research, I have to get back to my family, to my husband" — she told Pinter that she had decided to stay.
The rest is history.
Two months later, Pinter went to see Hugh Fraser to tell him that he and Antonia had decided to live together. "And of course," says Brown, "being very British about it, Hugh Fraser hears the news, and then they move on to talk about their mutual interest in cricket."
Brown loves Fraser's memoir because it manages to be "intimate without being confessional, and that's a very unusual thing today. At the end of it, you feel like you've had an insight into a great romance that has real passion, but you don't feel that soiled feeling of some kind of confessional book about two famous people. She's really pulled off something of enormous subtlety."
Must You Go? is the sort of book that a person growing up in the digital age might never be able to write. "Maybe if she'd been littering postings about every second of her life online, as opposed to in these wonderful diaries which she kept for 40 years," says Brown, "she wouldn't have felt the need to tell the story with such conviction."