Part 1—The semi-comical functioning of our rather fraudulent world: A funny thing happened, five years ago, in the suites at Vanity Fair.
Jim Holt, whose name won't ring a bell, had written a recognizable type of book. For unknown reasons, Vanity Fair assigned Lauren Christensen to interview him about it.
The fruit of that session can be squeezed here. Before the Qs-and-As began, readers were handed this overview:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): New Yorker Jim Holt has established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today, as an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. With his latest book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, out today from Liveright, Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain...Was it true? Had Holt "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today?"
That is a matter of judgment. The humor of the situation involves the person Vanity Fair picked to deliver this judgment.
At the time her judgment was rendered, Lauren Christensen was one year out of Princeton, where she had majored in English. Starting in June 2011, she had worked at Vanity Fair. According to she best positioned to know, she had worked in some or all of these capacities:
Assistant Editor to Aimée Bell, Deputy EditorBy this time, Christensen may have edited features, columns, and "Spotlights" across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections. She may have compiled the Vanity Fair books list for "Hot Type" considerations.
• Edited features, columns, and Spotlights across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections
• Coordinated an integrated monthly development process across all departments for incoming stories
• Directly aided contributing editors with story ideas, research, and editing
• Compiled the Vanity Fair books list for first serial and Hot Type considerations
• Pitched, researched, and wrote independent book reviews for both the print magazine and vanityfair.com
Now, through zero fault of her own, she was handed a new assignment. She was assigned to name the people who are invaluable fixtures in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today!
Question: in what world would an editor assign such a task to such a young, unqualified person?
Answer: in the world of our modern journalistic elite, after the curtain's drawn back! In the world of the music men who have helped create the world in which we all cringe today.
Nothing that happened in this comical instance was Laura Christensen's fault. Had deputy editor Aimee Bell made this rather unlikely assignment? We have no idea.
(In 1992, Bell, then 26, was reportedly "an editor of the Vanities section of Vanity Fair magazine in New York and is the books editor there." You can confirm those facts here.)
Whatever! Someone asked an English major one year out of college to engage in the act of judgment to which we have alluded. Understandably, when the Qs and As began, the Qs and As started like this:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly from above): Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain—highlights from our chat:In truth, that was an excellent way for this young journalist to start. In his utterly bogus response, it was Holt who cast himself in the role of cosmic pretender.
CHRISTENSEN: Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.
HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.
At the time this piece appeared, the alleged success of Holt's new book hadn't yet been established. Holt is an elusive figure whose background is surprisingly hard to pin down. Even today, the leading authority offers only the short bio shown below, but the bio does start to establish the worldly success of his book:
Jim Holt is an American philosopher, author and essayist. He has contributed to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and Slate. His book Why Does the World Exist? was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013.Is Holt "an American philosopher?" Only the recent college grads know for sure!
He hosted a weekly radio spot on BBC Wales called "Living in America, with Jim Holt" for ten years. He has appeared on William F. Buckley's Firing Line, NBC News with Tom Brokaw, and CNN. In 1997, he was editor of The New Leader, a political magazine. Holt lives in Greenwich Village, NY.
This bio does make the somewhat muddled claim that Holt's book "was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013." Under "Awards and Honors," it further notes that Holt's book was a 2012 finalist for a National Book Award.
(According to Nexis, the book appeared on the Times hard-cover bestseller list for three weeks during 2012, and for one week during 2013, never rising above number 23. During 2013, it appeared on the paperback bestseller list four times.)
In truth, Holt's book wasn't a giant best-seller, whether for 2012 or for 2013. That said, the leading authority doesn't mention another high honor received by Holt's book. Inevitably, in December 2012, the New York Times selected Holt's "existential detective story" as one of the ten best books of the year.
Should the Times have made that selection? That's a matter of judgment. That said, Christensen couldn't know this honor was coming when she received her assignment in the summer of that year.
Presumably, Christensen asked around concerning Holt, then voiced a conventional view. As an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, Holt had established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today. She herself didn't understand Holt's book. But it was what everyone said!
Christensen did something very right when she started her conversation in the way we've cited. She said she had no fucking idea what the fuck the invaluable fixer was talking about in his highly sophisticated book.
Did Holt know what he was talking about? We'll flirt with that question this week. In the process, we'll be starting a highly controversial conversation, one we expect to extend over several weeks.
At present, we're all waiting for Donald J. Trump to start his invaluable war. With our national discourse now a mere memory, we think it's time to take a peek behind the curtain and chuckle about the assortment of journalistic and academic frauds who have brought us to this darkly amusing point.
Who would ask a college kid to make an assessment like the one which landed in Christensen's lap? Music men would take that step—and none of Us would notice.
Tomorrow: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt? And what the Sam Hill has he said?
Later today: Drum on Comey