Wait wait … do tell me!
It’s not every day you crack open a book and learn in the first sentence that it was inspired by dweeby sportscaster Marv Albert. That, however, is the conceit with which Peter Sagal—the host of National Public Radio’s amusingly goofy quiz show, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!—begins The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things (and How To Do Them). The work is a trawl through our cultural underworld that is, to an actual instruction book on sin, as Wait Wait is to, say, Jeopardy.
Sagal, in mock-envious pursuit of know-how in the realm of lust, gluttony, lying and how to receive a lap dance, walks us through those of the deadly sins for which he can persuade his wife to come along. (Yes, she goes with him to the swingers’ club. No, they don’t do anything. Sagal is from NPR, not the Spice Network.) Where, you might ask, does Marv Albert come in? Well, he was involved in a sex scandal (he bit a lady, if you want to know), and this caused Sagal to think about why some people (e.g., NBA stars) can indulge in wanton vice with seeming impunity, and others (NBA commentator Marv Albert, Sagal) either get in trouble at the first whiff of naughtiness or are so cowed by consequence that they steer clear.
Sagal sets out to discover what separates the sinning haves from the virtuous (or at least cowardly) have-nots, and in the process, he goes to San Francisco’s Power Exchange, Las Vegas strip joints and casinos and—in a slightly less transgressive vein—Chicago’s famed experimental restaurant Alinea, trying to discover wherein lies their thrill.
He advances several theories, including the pure pleasure of transgression itself rather than the intrinsic pleasure of the act. (In many cases, such as gambling, he concludes that there’s little to no actual enjoyment involved in the vice.) “In fact,” he writes, “it’s the active choosing to do wrong—that repeated trip down the Via Hedonista, with its stations of Places to Turn Back—that provides so much of the thrill of misbehavior. We part the beaded curtains, whisper the password to the implacable bouncer, ask for $10,000 in $500 slot machine tokens … . Each of these acts has within it, homunculus-like, the image of the more substantial thrill to come.”
Sagal adopts a gently satirical yet wide-eyed tone throughout, with a dash of the sort of faux-anthropological observation that NPR does, after all, go in for. He manages to maintain this gee-shucks air, whether he’s describing his wife bonding with some of the world’s top female porn stars (not like that) or puzzling over what to do with the minuscule, perfect rosemary sprigs with which they’re presented at the start of that Alinea meal (“if we had been given little saws, we could attack the rosemary sprigs like tiny lumberjacks”).
His prose ranges widely, from Adam Smith to Jeri Ryan (and how her icky divorce facilitated the rise of Barack Obama) in the space of a single page. The resultant narrative is amusing and fast-paced; you turn the pages to find out what ludicrous thing Sagal is going to go do next and just how uncomfortable he is going to be standing around at, say, the totally moribund Kinky Couples Contest at the Power Exchange. Buried within the jokey anecdotes, though, are some thought-provoking ideas on why, exactly, the broader culture seems both to repudiate and condone “vice”—a deeply unfashionable word that nevertheless resonates. (The title is an obvious riposte to William Bennett’s Book of Virtues, and Bennett—and his high-stakes slots problem—is featured largely in the chapter on gambling, making him, perhaps, a more serious inspiration for the book than Marv Albert.)
“It is human nature to look for whatever satisfaction eludes us by going forward, and further—faster, harder, and deeper, if you will,” Sagal writes. He adds that for him, writing the book was transgression enough. It might not satisfy your urge to sin, but it does offer a highly readable guide.