Reflections on a Facebook meme

Those of us who have Facebook accounts may have seen a meme currently doing the rounds that asks:

The BBC believes that most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books below. How many have you read?

Those of us with more time on our hands than sense to know how best to use it may even have completed the questionnaire, ticking off those titles we have read and checking our score against those of our Facebook friends. I know I have.

There is no indication of what, if anything, this list is intended to indicate. If it is intended as a measure of how well-read or badly-read we are, it does seem, to be sure, an odd selection of titles. Is there really anyone who has read, for instance, both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code? Or would want to? It seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the former can only be enjoyed by readers who love language and delight in its usage, while the latter can only be enjoyed by those who do not care much if anything at all about language: it is hard to see where the two may intersect.  So what can a list containing both these titles possibly indicate? What could all these titles possibly have in common?

This is the point where I should have shrugged my shoulders, thought no more about such nonsense, and gone off to spend my time more wisely by … oh, I don’t know … by reading a good book, I suppose. But good sense never was among my strong points: I went to the BBC site to find the source of this list. I couldn’t find it.

The list contained in this Facebook meme seems remarkably similar to the results of the BBC Big Readers poll from some eleven years ago: I haven’t  made a detailed comparison between the two – I’m not that obsessed! – but it seems fair to infer that whoever put together that later list had based it on the earlier. In the Big Read poll, the BBC had asked the British public to nominate their favourite book. I cannot after all these years remember whether they had stipulated that the book nominated must be a work of prose fiction, but certainly, neither non-fiction, nor poetry, nor drama featured in the final results. The poll was quite a big thing at the time; and in case anyone should think celebrating books is elitist – a vile and unpardonable thing to be, of course, either then or now – an article in BBC’s in-house listings magazine, Radio Times, helpfully informed us, as I remember, that this poll was intended to discover what we really liked, rather than what critics tell us we should like. And thus the BBC’s democratic credentials remained unscathed.

Not that I look down on something like the Big Read. Far from it. Literature, as we all know or should know, isn’t a competitive sport, but most people realised, I think, that this poll was really no more than a bit of fun, and took it in that spirit. As a beneficial side effect, it spawned on the BBC site a discussion board, which very soon became a lively place with all sorts of people talking about whatever book they wanted to talk about, and at whatever level they were happy with: both inverted snobbery and right-way-up snobbery were conspicuous mainly by their absence. I made some very good friends on that board, many of whom remain friends still, long after the BBC decided, for reasons not entirely clear, to pull the plug on the board.

As for the poll itself – all those books we really like rather than the ones critics tell us we should like – it ended up a rather predictable mish-mash: mainly modern and contemporary novels, with a sprinkling of a number of titles from the nineteenth century and the earlier twentieth century that we think of as “classics”; many books we have grown up with, and continue to hold in affection; a few highbrow titles (which presumably we do really like), and, to get it right up the critics, a few lowbrow ones also; but most, it seems to me, unexceptionably from the middle range. As one might expect, I guess. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

While this list is a reasonable measure of the reading tastes of the reading public, I’m not sure that counting up from that list the number of books we have read tells us much about how well-read we are. Perhaps, to get a representative list of books one should read in order to be considered “well-read” – a representative list, since a comprehensive list of this nature would be too vast even to contemplate – we should have asked the critics after all: for sometimes, even in our democratic age, it is no bad thing to be told what we should like by people who have spent much time and effort developing their understanding and their discernment. One may, of course, end up disagreeing with their choices, but such disagreement only carries weight when one can disagree from a comparable level of understanding and discernment. Otherwise, it’s rather meaningless.

What sort of list would we have had, I wonder, if we had asked the critics? There are many titles in the Big Read list as it is that could very easily have made this hypothetical List of the Cognoscenti: few, I imagine, would quarrel with the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice, say, or of War and Peace, or of Great Expectations, or of Ulysses, in any list of great books. But wouldn’t it have been good to have had a list which, rather than confirm back to us what we already know and like, encouraged us to try out, maybe, The Scarlet Letter? Or Clarissa? Or Fathers and Sons? Or The House of Mirth? Or, if we expanded the remit beyond prose fiction, to, say, The Oresteia? Or The Odyssey? Or Njal’s Saga? Or Paradise Lost? Or, if we expanded the remit even further to include works of non-fiction, to, say, the Dialogues of Plato? Or The Histories of Herodotus or The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides? Or the essays of Montaigne or the Ethics of Spinoza?

It’ll never happen, of course. It is not so much that we resent the idea of critics as such:  after all, in this age of the internet, we are all, myself included, quite happy to become critics ourselves. What we find ourselves resenting is the idea that certain people, by virtue of their having spent time and effort applying their intelligence and their analytic skills to the study of literature, have developed keener discernment and understanding than the rest of us.

And so, we end up merely repeating the same handful of titles over and over again, and we determine how well-read we are on the basis of how many of those titles in the list we may tick off. And we know – or, at least, I know – that the next time another such Facebook meme comes along, we’ll be falling for it all over again.

Oh, and by the way, I got 52/100 in that Facebook meme. Made me feel thoroughly inadequate when I looked at the score of some of my Facebook friends. Oh well … back to my Chaucer …

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22 responses to this post.

  1. We are the mischief makers
    We are the makers of memes
    Photoshopping newspapers
    And editing video streams
    Reputation builders and breakers,
    Protesting in silent screams;
    Impotent clenched-fist shakers,
    Of the web forever, it seems.

    (Apologies to Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy)

    Reply

  2. I’ve always said I’d love to see lists of the books (films/music/sandwich fillings) chosen by fewer than, say, ten people, rather than those on the most popular list.

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    • I think that in Year 2000, Waterstones commissioned a similar poll of favourite books from the last century (or was it the last millennium? something like that), and, as well as the usual suspects in the Top 100, they printed a list of books that had received just one vote. It made for great reading. I’d love to meet the person whose favourite book is “Tractatus” by Wittgenstein. It wasn’t you, was it, Dai?

      Reply

  3. Thanks for this post. I feel I must step up and identify myself as one of the people who’ve read Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code. As self-defense or self-accusation, I’ll add that my sister gave me a copy of The Da Vinci Code in French because, she said, she knew I was too much of a right-way-up snob to read it in English.

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  4. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

    Ha ha, this bit killed me!

    Reply

  5. Strange list. I scored 48 to your 52, so you are ahead of me. But to combine Stephen King and Leo Tolstoy, Dickens and Anya Seton? Nothing against any of these people, and I have read Seton although not the book listed, but what is the intention here? Fortunately I did read most of the children’s classics such as Winnie the Pooh and The Secret Garden, which helped my score because I am not well read in the more recent books.

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy, I guess the varied titles in the list is a reflection of the varied taste of the public. But it is certainly hard to discern what ticking off the titles one has read could possibly signify!

      By the time I knew English well enough to read books in the language, many children’s classics had passed me by. Indeed, books such as The Wind in the Willows, say, I only read when our own children were growing up. I used to love adventure books – like Kidnapped or The Three Musketeers, say. Which is rather odd, as I was quite a timid child!

      Reply

  6. Posted by Brian Joseph on March 18, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I must sheepishly admit that I too love these lists. Good point about the fact that they usually lack some of the lesser talked about greats. As Nancy mentions this list and many others that have been floating around lately are odd. The trend is indeed a mix of popular culture with the classics.

    Reply

    • Oh, we all love a list, don’t we? 🙂

      The classics that appear regularly in such lists do have, I think, a curious effect: they almost become entrenched as the classics; when people want to “have a go at the classics”, it is almost invariably to this handful of titles that people turn to. Which is a shame: a classic is simply any book that has passed the test of time – there really is, I think, no other meaningful definition. And there are vast numbers of books that have done that – more than any single one of us will ever get to know. Looking over at, say Miguel’s blog posts dealing with Portuguese literature, or Tony’s blog posts on Japanese literature, and many others, never fails to bring home to me just how little I know of all there is to be known. What a shame to restrict all these riches to a mere small handful of titles!

      Reply

  7. I think it’s a wonderful exercise, thoroughly understandable.

    Only because I’ve read 70 of them though 😉

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  8. Posted by Maggie on March 18, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    I’d read 65 including Ulysses and the Ds Vinci Code but made a list of those started and abandoned.
    The Alchemist. Cloud Atlas, Birdsong, the Time Traveller’s Wife, Catch 22, Life of Pi and Midnight’s Children. Apropos of lists there was recently a list of most mispronounced words – what’s a meme and how do you pronounce it?

    Reply

    • Hello Maggie,

      Since so many have appeared to have read both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code, it appears i was wrong in suggesting that one cannotread both, and, somewhat red-faced, withdraw my comment!

      As for “meme” – I tend to pronounce it such that it rhymes with “beam”. I believe it was a concept concocted in the field of genetics to indicate something that could be replicated in some way, or, as defined in Wikipedia, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. An “internet meme” is defined, again by Wikipedia (where would I be without it!) as “is an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept”.

      And when one isn’t spreading memes oin teh net, one is commenting on them. As I am, I guess!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  9. Does one only need to read a hundred books to be well-read? I find that suspicious.
    Another thing that bothers me about these lists is that they are all the same. Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Heller, Shakespeare etc. ad nauseam. Doesn’t being well-read not include new things? When was the last time anyone read anything by a Ghanaian, Venezuelan, Korean writer, for example? Literary snobs are not going far enough. They should up their game.

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    • Literary snobs are not going far enough. They should up their game.

      Hear, hear!

      It’s easy to dismiss these lists as merely a bit of fun – and they are fun, I admit it! – but i can’t help feeling that they perpetuate the perception that the pursuit of literature is but a matter of ticking certain titles off a list. If we are to care about literature at all, we must deem this a damaging perception.

      There also, it seems to be, appears to be a widespread perception that everything is but a matter of personal taste, and, that being so, it is snobbish to say that anything has greater intrinsic value than anything else, as to say so is to privilege certain personal tastes above others. Once again, this seems to me a damaging perception. It denies the very concept of excellence.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

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  10. I’m afraid I will never feel well-read (even though I’ve read both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code – I’m not proud). These lists almost invariably leave out most of the books I’ve most appreciated, and a list of the books I’ve most appreciated would in turn leave out thousands more that I’m sure I would appreciate if I were ever to read them. But I do have fun with these lists anyway; they offer a diversion from having to actually think about the content of what one has read.

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    • No, I don’t think I’ll ever feel well-read either. Every time I walk into a good bookshop, I feel intellectually inadequate: there’s so much worth pursuing that I haven’t pursued, and that I never will. There is so much that my rusty old brain is simply incapable of taking in!

      I have got to a stage now where it seems to me time better spent getting to know a few things well rather than knowing a lot of things superficially. I do try to expand my reading (I’m trying to read Chaucer in Middle English right now), butthere are far too many books that I know only superficially, and which I need to revisit.

      Lists are fun, and I certainly don’t object to them Indeed, I’ve bene known to make up a few lists myself from time to time! But I do find something dispiriting about the same handful of titles churned out time after time and labelled “classics” – as if that’s all there were to classic literature.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri.

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  11. Although I agree with many of the comments about the lack of variety in many of these lists, surely one benefit in having a “canon” shared by a lot of readers is that it is a quick barometer of taste in a way that is meaningful to us. If we all read totally different books (as I’m sure we could, without much compromise in quality) how would we converse? (Read 81)

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    • I do actually agree with you about the importance of the canon. I know that the very concept of a canon is much derided in certain quarters, but it seems to me that if we are to have any concept at all of literary excellence, then, since it is neither feasible nor desirable to specify a set of criteria that defines this concept, it is important at least to be aware of those works that embody it.

      I doubt, though, whether any list of canonical works – even a representative list – can be derived from a popular poll. Such a poll merely tells us what is popular. Which is fine in itself, but, if we are to define the “canon” as works that embody the concept of literary excellence, a popularity poll doesn’t necessarily produce a canonical list.

      Of course, no-one is saying that the BBC Big Read results, and the list derived from it, are canonic in that respect. Nonetheless, whenever I see lists purporting to be of “The Best Books” or “Books You Must Read” or whatever, – and there are many such lists flying around – I do tend to notice the same rather small set of titles cropping up over and over again. Possibly I am reading too much into this, but it seems to me that there does exist a perception of the canon being little more than a series of set titles from a relatively restricted range of literature; and this perception seems to me worth challenging.

      Perhaps I should spread my own net a bit wider. Perhaps I too should read (and write about) Arthurian epics, classic Persian poetry, Buddhist scriptures, English Metaphysical poets, medieval scholaticism, etc.etc. Problem is – I find it hard enough writing about what i am familiar with!

      Reply

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