If you happen to stop by the Strand Bookstore in New York City, you will inevitably come across signs placed among the books that provide the following timeless advice: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” In the captivating Netflix documentary, “Pretend It’s a City,” we learn that the author of that quote is humorist Fran Lebowitz. The quote is from an essay titled “Tips for Teens” that she originally wrote for Newsweek magazine’s “My Turn” back in 1978. Lebowitz, who is a fascinating raconteur, explains that the words found on those signs is only half the quote; the full quote is “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself — a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”
In that essay, written when she was 28 years old, Lebowitz dispensed the type of life wisdom — albeit delivered in her trademarked wry, sardonic style — that are typically found in high school and college graduation commencement speeches. You may recall Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s faux graduation speech titled “Always Wear Sunscreen” published in May 1997 that also provided young people with sage advice. (Interestingly, due to an Internet version of the “Telephone Game,” the speech was mistakenly attributed author Kurt Vonnegut.) Lebowitz’s essay, which was reprinted in a collection of essays titled Social Studies published in 1981 (a hardback is on sale on Amazon for $899.99!), perfectly captures the awkward and distressing period of adolescence: “There is perhaps, for all concerned, no period of life so unpleasant, so unappealing, so downright unpalatable, as that of adolescence. And while pretty much everyone who comes into contact with him is disagreeably affected, certainly no one is in for a ruder shock than the actual teenager himself. Fresh from twelve straight years of uninterrupted cuteness, he is singularly unprepared to deal with the harsh consequences of inadequate personal appearance.” Most people can relate to that. But Lebowitz observes that the teenager’s problems are not only skin deep — she believes that teenagers face all types of challenges and respond by excessive oversharing (“TMI” in textese): “Philosophical, spiritual, social, legal — a veritable multitude of difficulties daily confront him. Understandably disconcerted, the teenager almost invariably finds himself in a state of unrelenting misery. This is, of course, unfortunate, even lamentable. Yet one frequently discovers a lack of sympathy for the troubled youth. This dearth of compassion is undoubtedly due to the teenager’s insistence upon dealing with his lot in an unduly boisterous fashion. He is, quite simply, at an age where he can keep nothing to himself. This sort of behavior naturally tends to have an alienating effect.”
Lebowitz, feeling some level of sympathy for disaffected teenagers since she was as adolescent once — as she will freely admit — casts some other pearls of wisdom to help them navigate their way through life:
“If in addition to being physically unattractive you find that you do not get along well with others, do not under any circumstances attempt to alleviate this situation by developing an interesting personality. An interesting personality is, in an adult, insufferable. In a teenager it is frequently punishable by law.
Wearing dark glasses at the breakfast table is socially acceptable only if you are legally blind or partaking of your morning meal out of doors during a total eclipse of the sun.
Should your political opinions be at extreme variance with those of your parents, keep in mind that while it is indeed your constitutional right to express these sentiments verbally, it is unseemly to do so with your mouth full–particularly when it is full of the oppressor’s standing rib roast.
Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself–a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.
Try to derive some comfort from the knowledge that if your guidance counselor were working up to his potential, he wouldn’t still be in high school.
The teen years are fraught with any number of hazards, but none so perilous as that which manifests itself as a tendency to consider movies an important art form. If you are presently, or just about to be, of this opinion, perhaps I can spare you years of unbearable pretension by posing this question: If movies (or films, as you are probably now referring to them) were of such a high and serious nature, can you possibly entertain even the slightest notion that they would show them in a place that sold Orange Crush and Jujubes?
It is at this point in your life that you will be giving the greatest amount of time and attention to matters of sex. This not only is acceptable, but should, in fact, be encouraged, for this is the last time that sex will be genuinely exciting.
The girl in your class who suggests that this year the Drama Club put on The Bald Soprano will be a thorn in people’s sides all of her life.
Should you be a teenager blessed with uncommon good looks, document this state of affairs by the taking of photographs. It is the only way anyone will ever believe you in years to come.”
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For further reading:
Social Studies, Fran Lebowitz, Random House, 1981.
Pretend It’s A City, Library Services (Episode 7), Netflix, premiered January 8, 2021.