The Book of Vice


Peter Sagal




Date Reviewed:

June 15, 2008

he complete title for this book is: The Book of Vice - Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them). The title is a mild parody of William Bennett's The Book of Virtues, which was a big bestseller in 1996. Bennett shows up in this book when Sagal talks about gambling; despite portraying himself as a speaker of virtue, Bennet has since been unmasked as a compulsive gambler.

Sagal explores several vices - by his definition, vices are "sin" - activitities that are not illegal, but are considered immoral. Thus, he avoids illegal drugs or prostitution, and instead gives us a chapter on each of the following vices: swinging, gambling, gluttony, lying, stripping, pornography. The reviews make it sound like the book is full of hilarious observations, but it isn't that amusing.

In the first section, Sagal investigates swingers. He and his wife attend a Saturday night party where couples go each weekend with the intention of swapping mates. (Sagal only observes, he and his wife do not participate.) Despite the sub-title of this book: Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them), Sagal does not tell the reader where the swinger's club is located, or how one can be joined; he deletes the name of the place and is careful not to leave clues about how to find it, and he alters the names of everyone interviewed. Despite his interviews, it is hard to tell from the conversations just how much the club members are enjoying themselves. Sagal leaves most of the activities of the club to the reader's imagination. Since this is a personal survey of vice, Sagal doesn't offer any statistics such as what percentage of Americans try swinging, nor is there any history (was it more or less common in the 1960's? The roaring 20s?) Is it legal in all 50 states? - after all, it is adultery.

The section on gambling mentions the hypocritical William Bennett, who rose to fame condemning the moral failings of his fellow citizens - only later was it revealed that Bennett himself had a substantial gambling problem. Sagal describes how the odds of gambling are in favor of the house, so of course casinos make money. Sagal also describes how bored and unexcited most gamblers look - the people in casinos, throwing away their money, don't look to be having any fun at all. However,Sagal ignores whole areas of gambling - what about poker tournaments or card games in private homes? What about the excitement of horse racing, or betting on sports? Are lottery winners truly happy? But since he only has one chapter on gambling, Sagal only has time to skim the subject, and so he focused entirely on casinos.

The chapter on gluttony is perhaps the most interesting, maybe because Sagal actually joins in the vice rather than just observing. Sagal and his wife have a dinner at a strange restaurant that serves elaborate tiny dishes, each course is a mini work of art. There may be 60 of these tiny courses in a meal. The chef delights in preparing the food in exotic shapes or with strange utensiles, the diners are often perplexed on how they are expected to consume the dish. I think Sagal enjoyed this outing, especially since he could charge the whole expense to his book. I thought this was the chapter where Sagal had the most fun - but is it really gluttony? Eating 60 tiny dishes isn't going to fill you to the point of bursting. Sagal should have gone to an All You Can Eat buffet and seen how the other restaurant patrons behaved - and then made 5 trips to the dessert bar.

The chapter on strippers is probably the most depressing. Clearly, Sagal can not identify with the strippers, nor with the patrons of the strip joints. He tries to give a non-judgemental description of the industry, but clearly his heart isn't in it.

I think this book would have been more fun if Sagal had actually indulged in the vices, rather than just observing. But he is too straight laced to participate (or maybe he did partake and just won't admit it?) Maybe all the people who endless tug at the lever of the slot machine really are having fun - how do you know if you don't try? Sagal tries to be witty, but I didn't find this a funny book. Perhaps in the hands of someone like P.J. O'Rourke, this would have been better executed book.