Academics, we’ve already decided, are sadly unfamiliar with guilty pleasures. But you know who are the true experts? Public radio show hosts.
Case in point: Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, has taken up the implicit challenge posed by William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, the very existence of which is a monument to the cherished American freedom to expound upon things to which one stands as a shining counterexample. Peter has responded with The Book of Vice, a work that is both infinitely more entertaining and ultimately more educational about the nature of right and wrong.
I can go on a first-name here, as I know Peter from my Chicago days, and we’ve even indulged together in approximately three of the seven types of vice he explores in the book. (I’m also “friends” with Carl Kasell on Facebook, but that’s not a very elite group.) Like any new author, Peter has now started up a blog, and I was able to prevail on our friendship to secure Cosmic Variance a place on its very elite blogroll. You are doubtless imagining a tensely-negotiated quid pro quo according to which I would agree to plug the book, and of course you are correct. But all this talk of virtue and vice activated some tiny shred of conscience that I hadn’t previously suspected, so I actually waited to read the book before I mentioned it. And: it’s great! Which saves me a certain amount of light stepping, book-review-wise.
The conceit of the book is that, unlike bilious blowhard Bill Bennett, whose greatest pleasure in life (other than chain smoking and dropping millions at slot machines) is publicly condemning the moral failures of others, Peter is a genuinely generous and good-hearted person, even shading toward the vanilla in the workings of his everyday life. Vice, in other words, just isn’t his bag. So when he brings his charming wife Beth along on a fact-finding (and strictly non-participating) mission to a partner-swapping swinger’s club, he reports back from the perspective of a fascinated anthropologist, not that of a jaded connoisseur. And, like any good social scientist, he doesn’t pre-judge, but let’s the experimental data determine the conclusions.
As a result, not all vices come in for equal measures of condemnation or celebration. Swapping sexual partners? Kind of boring, and ridden with self-deception. Modern high-tech gluttony? Awesome.
In case you were wondering.