Book Review: Are You A Bromide?

Are You A Bromide?, or The Sulphitic Theory:  Expounded And Exemplified According To The Most Recent Researches Into The Psychology Of Boredom, by Gelett Burgess

Published in 1908, and still certainly relevant nowadays, this is the sort of essay that would in our contemporary age be part of a blog series or would be distilled in an article of the Onion or some other parody news source.  This particular short essay was originally published in “The Smart Set” in 1906 and was then made into a standalone volume, presumably to be read and chortled over by those who fancied themselves to be “among the illuminati (9).”  It is difficult for me at least to read this book and avoid seeing that it is written on at least two levels.  On the one hand, this book is a lighthearted humorous piece that divides humanity into two types, conventional bromides who ape the trends of others and unpredictable sulphites capable of original thought.  One can sense within the reader as well an understanding that the terms used by the author are capable of becoming cliches, so that people who read the book uncritically can adopt the language of the book without having the proper ironic mindset to apply them to themselves, such that what is original can become copied often enough so as to eventually be particularly trite and banal.

The essay itself is a short one of about sixty quarto pages, barely qualifying in length as a book, but for its small size, which makes sense because of its origins as a lead piece in a magazine, it is still a worthwhile book to read today because it demonstrates a particular t rend within contemporary culture that I write and reflect upon often.  At the heart of this book is a polarity between what is striking and original and that which views itself to be original but is painfully unconventional, between those who come to their own thoughts even if those thoughts may not be particularly unusual and those who uncritically adopt the thinking of others and therefore think themselves to be more original on those grounds.  We may think of this as the polarity between those who are thought leaders and thought followers, between those whose mind bubbles with originality and those who are continually surprised by what they see in others, between those who are able to take a critical and ironic look at themselves and their own lives and those for whom the artist and the progressive are merely a pose and whose self-seriousness makes all efforts to rebuke or correct or lightly and gently tease become fraught with all kinds of danger.  The author himself is full of irony and paradox, and one reads this book the same way one would read satire [1], with a sense of its layers and its paradoxical enjoyment.

Yet even though this book is not by any means new, it is a very relevant work in explaining many trends in contemporary culture.  For example, this book helpfully discusses the tension that exists between those who are originators and those who are copyists.  Much of contemporary culture consists of fads and a tendency for what is shocking to become conventional within the course of a generation, something which can be connected to the tendency of many who fancy themselves to be originators and cultural innovators to be discontented about being lumped in with those who copy them, leading them to act in more unconventional and shocking ways and for those ways to be accepted and imitated by the larger culture around.  Indeed, what the author titles as sulphitic would be the same as what the contemporary thinker would deem as hipster [2].  All that is original will, if it is of any worth or enjoyment at all, become cliche eventually.  What never becomes cliche is the originality of the mindset.  And here there is paradox as well.  There are those whose lives may be restrained and circumscribed whose freedom of thought and capability for reflection and insight makes them unpredictable despite their dull and boring conventionality, and those who are so intent on shocking and surprising others (think of Madonna here, or Britney Spears or any number of imitators) that they end up being somewhat predictable in their desire to be unpredictable.  Those who try to be cool will always find it irritating that others will wish to be just like them, and so they will periodically change how they act and how they present themselves so as to stay ahead of an ever-shifting tendency for others to mimic their example.  How much better it would be for people to simply model the sort of behavior that could be copied, and to appreciate the role of being teachers and models of the right way to live.  How daring and radical and original would that be?

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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