Cringe editor Sarah Brown has taken that time-honored tradition of dusting off a dozen-year-old journal, paging through it, and wondering, “What the hell was I thinking?” In doing so, she’s created a cottage industry that includes a blog, a monthly reading series, and now a book. Somewhat ironically, Cringe the book capitalizes on a few dubious publishing trends — the precious, over-sharing narrative that relies on embarrassment as the sole road to empathy, and blogger-authored novelty books that don’t weather well — that might make some writers and editors look back on this anthology in a few years’ time only to, well, cringe. But to her credit, Brown has put together more of a toilet-tank-lid miscellany than a blasé coffee-table book. The concept is relatively simple: this is a collection of pages torn from diaries and journals, school notebook covers, letters, fan mail, post-it notes and more, all donated by contributors who introduce and explain their artifacts.
While this tendency to wax nostalgic for such a recent past (none of the contributors are over 40) doesn’t sit well at first, several things elevate Cringe. Brown has curated her entries well, selecting participants with good-natured, relatable senses of humor. Anne Frank and her diary, “Kitty”, are cited as inspiration (and apologized to) more than once for the self-acknowledged dreck that follows. Some contributors take the easy route for their intros, culling their yuks from the well-worn LOL territory of instant messaging and Facebook status-updating, as in “Knock knock: Who’s there? A friendless, bitchy eleven-year-old!”
The very best entries meld hindsight with an empathetic understanding of their past selves, and, more generally, the plight of the American teenage nerd. “What makes you cringe the most, I think, when you look through your childhood journals, are those moments when you realize how little you’ve changed,” one contributor writes. True, and he also proves how much comfort this realization provides. This strange collection necessarily lacks the emotional resonance of an autobiographical confessional like “Kitty”, but Cringe certainly has a shot at transcending the glib and often disappointing transition from gimmick to book.