December 20, 2007


Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca. By Ed Hamilton. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.95.

Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. By Julian Dibbell. Basic Books. $15.95.

      The artistic impulse is old and, one hopes, undying, but its manifestations change, and there is scarcely any contact between the old-style artistry of Ed Hamilton’s book and the newfangled stuff that underlies Julian Dibbell’s. Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is strictly a nostalgia piece, and aimed at a very narrow subset of the artistic world. This is a New York City book through and through, because even though some of the names in it have resonance far beyond the Big Apple – Bob Dylan, Thomas Wolfe, Madonna, Sid Vicious – Hamilton’s work is about New York and the people who practice a very old-fashioned style of bohemianism there. Thus, it is the tale of Stanley Bard, who has managed the Chelsea Hotel since the 1950s (taking it over from his father, David Bard) – and who was recently forced out by his partners so the hotel can be gentrified, bringing an end to the freewheeling existence that Hamilton chronicles. The hotel has been a place like something out of La bohème, filled with creative people who were often late with the rent but could be counted on to be starving artists with style. If anecdotes about this sort of living are your cup of tea (or perhaps your glass of absinthe), you will find plenty to enjoy in Hamilton’s book. If you find the constant inward focus and holier-than-thou attitudes of some of these artistic types pretentious and self-important, if you are unconvinced that there is something inherently noble in the starving-artist lifestyle (especially when practiced in New York), then you are not in the spirit of the book and will find it overblown and, what is worse, a bore.

      In that case, you may prefer Play Money, which focuses on the far more modern artistic endeavors of a) succeeding in the virtual world and b) making money. Dibble stumbled into his commercial role more or less by chance, he says. He claims that all he really wanted to do was sit in his living room killing lizard men in a kingdom within the virtual world of Ultima Online. These virtual worlds, and the avatars and evil creatures and landscapes of which they are made, are elements of modern artistry every bit as significant today as the words of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were when the Chelsea Hotel was at its peak. Ultima Online is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG. First released in 1997 and largely responsible for popularizing the MMORPG genre, it retains a strong following in its newer incarnations even though it is not as well known or popular as, say, World of Warcraft. Dibble’s point in Play Money is that these games have their own virtual economies (in addition to existing in the real-world economy, in which players pay monthly fees for the privilege of “inhabiting” the virtual worlds). Dibbell discovered that players who did not want to work and fight their way up through a game’s various levels could be induced to pay real-world cash for virtual-world implements that would advance their quests. How Dibbell turned this discovery (which, it should be noted, he was scarcely the first to make) into actual real-life money (but emphatically not millions of real dollars) is the subject of his book, which contains little bits of economics, technology and law and which introduces such characters as a person whose sole job involves scanning eBay listings to find undervalued virtual assets. This is artistry of a sort, or at least craftsmanship; it is also, at least as explicated in Real Money, no longer really what is going on – since the book details Dibbell’s experiences in a time period ending in April 2004. The years since represent multiple generations of Web design and development, including the emergence of technologies and forms of role-playing undreamed of in those ancient days of three-plus years ago. Still, Dibbell’s book is fun as history of one sort, just as Hamilton’s is fun as history of a different sort. But in the long run – and even in the short-to-medium run – both their worlds are, well, history.

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