Review: Dancing Barefoot (book)
Bloggers can grow up to be real writers. That’s the moral of the story of actor Wil Wheaton, who started a weblog and discovered he has a talent for writing.
Too often it doesn’t work out that way. Too often, bloggers use their public space as a diary, a public space in which they vent what perhaps ought to be private thoughts. As readers, if we stumble across a blogger whose thoughts don’t interest us, we can close it up and not read it. Now and then, though, we find a blog that informs us, or entertains us. I read one such blog recently, during the run of a seven-time Jeopardy champion. Each day after the show aired, he posted explanations of his strategies, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and all that stuff that is genuinely interesting to game show fans. (In case you are also a game show geek, his name is Tom Walsh—look for him this fall in the Tournament of Champions.)
I don’t intend to put down bloggers in general, but lately I’ve been doing research on the way newspapers have made technological changes over the years, and I keep running into references to weblogs. The problem I have with this overlap is that blogs are not journalism. That’s the disconnect that keeps coming up for me. Even if a blog is operated by a newspaper writer or columnist on its own Web site, I still cannot call it journalism. Blogs do not, by definition, have ethical rules underlying them, while responsible journalism has lots of rules. Responsible journalism has multiple layers of fact-checking and verification (which sometimes breaks down, but it supposed to be there regardless). Blogs are merely opinion.
That said, some people’s opinions are more interesting than others. If you are a Star Trek fan, Wil Wheaton’s blog may be interesting to you. Of the many actors and writers in the ST community, Wheaton is one of the most polarizing. Lots of viewers loathed his character, who was a young teenager on the second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The creator of the series, Gene Roddenberry, intended Wheaton’s character to represent all the wonder and awe most of us would feel on our first trip into space, on our first interaction with important ship’s personnel, and on meeting new alien life forms. Since the character, Wesley Crusher, was young, he sometimes made mistakes that endangered the ship or crew. As a boy genius, though, he was able to devise solutions to the problems. Viewers tired of storylines in which Wesley saved the ship from problems of his own creation. In actuality, these totaled perhaps four episodes in four seasons. His callowness became exaggerated by viewers, who also could not separate the character of Wesley from the actor Wil Wheaton.
Wheaton started his blog a few years ago. It is read by upwards of 100,000 people each week and was named Best Celebrity Weblog by Forbes.com in 2003. A friend told Wheaton he should publish his stories in a more permanent format, and he began compiling a book, which will be released this summer entitled Just a Geek. He realized he had too much material for the book, so he removed some segments that he liked but that were not essential to Just a Geek. These segments are presented in Dancing Barefoot.
The first four segments are very short, only a few pages each. Each shows us a warmth about Wheaton. Three describe moments with his family members, and one gives us a teenage memory that especially shows us Wheaton’s genuine geekiness. We all have some of that geek in us, and it’s easy to feel the connection with him.
The final segment is much longer, and tells of Wheaton’s adventures on a weekend in Las Vegas. Yes, there are some of those kinds of adventures, and some off-color language here and there, so readers with sensitive ears will not care for this story. The reason Wheaton was in Vegas the weekend in question, though, was not so much to gamble but to participate in a Star Trek convention. He understands how much money attendees pay for those experiences, and he is determined to do his part to make their time worth the investment. He talks about signing autographs, giving a talk, and writing and performing sketch comedy that has nothing to do with Trek but whose audience is enthusiastic Trek fans.
Wheaton lets us know how Star Trek affected him as a young man. There were parts of the experience that he resented, even though he understood why they happened. One of the most interesting moments he describes is when he first met William Shatner, the star of the original Star Trek series and its many follow-up movies. Shatner treated him badly when they met, and Wheaton felt humiliated and angry. They later made up, although they will never be great pals. Wheaton was determined not to deliberately make any fan feel the way Shatner made him feel, so he does his best to treat even the nut cases with respect or at least courtesy. Near the end of his story, he visits the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Quick review of The Star Trek Experience: I recommend this for fans; non-fans should save their money. The ride is good but not worth the total admission, which includes a museum and stuff that fans will adore but non-fans will hate. Quark’s Bar is a hoot for fans and non-fans alike.
Spoiler In Next Paragraph—Don’t read if you want to be delighted when you read the book.
So Wheaton is standing on the “bridge” of the Enterprise in the ride simulator, and he hears and sees on-screen actor Jonathan Frakes, playing character William Riker as part of the simulated ride. Wheaton is transported back a decade, and he has an epiphany. He realizes that even though there are plenty of things about Trek that have plagued him, there are also plenty of things that were good, and rewarding, and fulfilling about the part he played in a culturally significant story.
It was a nice moment, reading it. He has become A Real Writer.
I have a couple of criticisms, neither of which have that much to do with Wheaton himself. I think Dancing Barefoot is a little overpriced at $15. Not much anyone can do about that, except consider other options such as buying used or borrowing from the library. I want Wheaton to make money off these books, though, so if you’re a Trek fan, you will probably find it worth the money. It’s a short book, so take your time and make it last.
There’s a reference late in the book, in which Wheaton says he was not “thinking that in just two days I will never want to board an airplane again.” I had to do a little too much work to place this story in time, and realize that it took place the weekend before terrorists flew airplanes into US buildings. That is more an editing mistake than a writing problem, but it might have been nice to have one more clause there to remind us of the date of the convention he was writing about.
Wheaton has a nice, easy writing style. He understands that to write well we must write about things we know, and that we should write in our own voices. He’s done both. This is a very good first effort. I look forward to Just a Geek, coming out this summer.