Posts Tagged ‘meme’

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 …

The Liebster Questions: Part One

Among the many social changes brought about recently through technology is the creation of “cyberfriends”. The very sound of the word has a vaguely sinister ring to it – but the sense of the sinister is belied entirely by the reality, as increasing numbers find themselves good friends with people they have never met in real life. A few years ago, this would have been dismissed as “sad”, and the making of cyberfriends seen as something indulged in merely by social inadequates who are unable to make friends in the real world. There may be some remnants of truth in this, but good cyberfriends have been made by so many people who are perfectly normal and gregarious in real life, and who have a more than adequate social life outside cyberspace, that this cannot be considered generally true. In any case, the opportunity to make contact with people sharing one’s own tastes and values, often from across the world, is surely to be welcomed rather than sneered at.

I am happy to say that I have, over the years, made a number of very good “cyberfriends”. Cynics may say that one never really gets to know them. Perhaps. But the same observation applies to real world friends also. The point surely is that, after a point, one comes to feel about one’s cyberfriends in the same way as one does about real-world friends. Indeed, the very terminology that opposes “cyberworld” to the “real world” is, in this context, misplaced, as cyberfriends inhabit the real world also. And soon, one comes to sympathise with their sorrows and rejoice in their triumphs much as one does with one’s non-cyber-friends.

All of this is a verbose preamble to introducing a good cyberfriend of mine, Melanie, writer of the lovely Bookish Nature blog. From her latest post, I am well chuffed to find that it was I who inspired her to start her blog: it is wonderful to discover that not only am I a blogger in myself, but the cause that blogging is in others!

The reason I introduce her is partly to encourage you to visit her blog, and partly also to respond to her awarding me the Liebster Prize. To accept this prize, one has to:

– Give thanks.

That’s hardly a problem: my thanks go without saying!

– Tell 11 things about yourself.

Ah – I am not sure what I can say about myself without repeating myself here. Readers of this blog will already know those salient facts about myself that I do not mind saying in public. But, ever a solipsist, I am always more than happy to talk about what is, after all, my favourite subject. So yes, I’ll have a go at this as well.

– Answer to the best of your ability the 11 questions that are asked of you.

I’ll do my best.

– Nominate 11 other bloggers for this award – and let them know. Ask the above nominees 11 questions of your own, or use the questions you were asked.

May I please be excused from nominating eleven others? There are so many whose blogs I enjoy that nominating some to the exclusion of others seems not quite fair. But I will set eleven questions, to be answered by whoever wishes to answer them!

First, eleven things about myself.

1. One of my earliest memories was a medical skeleton that my grandfather, a doctor, used to have in his surgery back in India. This skeleton fascinated me, and often used to appear in my nightmares. Indeed, even when I have nightmares now, that damn skeleton frequently makes a guest appearance.

2. The first film I remember seeing in English was The Sound of Music. This was shortly after I had come to Britain, aged 5, and The Sound of Music was, at the time, a recent release. I couldn’t understand a word of it, and I think I fell asleep. Falling asleep to this film has become something of a tradition in the intervening years.

3. My parents rented a television back then because they thought it would help me with my English (English was, of course, a new language to me back then). I remember being frightened by Abbott and Costello in Jack and the Beanstalk. It remains a disturbing film, and not one I’d care to revisit.

4. We soon moved to the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, on the North Sea coast. I never could understand why the sea was always described as “blue”: I never saw anything other than a dull, grey mass.

5. The first football match I ever went to was Raith Rovers vs Kilmarnock, in Stark’s Park in Kirkcaldy, in what was then Scottish League Division 1. The local team, Raith Rovers, whom I was supporting, was leading 2-0 with only 7 minutes to go, but ended up losing 3-2. This set the pattern for the future: whoever I support, in any sport, is almost so certain to lose, that on the rare occasion that I have found myself on the winning side, I have felt somewhat uneasy, and unsure what to do with myself.

6. My family moved around a bit in those years, and as a consequence, as soon as I’d made a set of friends, I’d end up losing them. But two sets of friends I made in my childhood years remain good friends still – Laurel and Hardy, and Holmes and Watson.

The Laurel & Hardy memorial in Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel

7. What with all the moving around, I skipped a year somehow in my schooling, and left school a year earlier than is normal. In Scotland, they left school (in my day at least) at seventeen; but in 1976, aged sixteen, I found myself a student in Strathclyde University, studying physics, and living in a Hall of Residence on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. I was a cocky wee kid, and it never occurred to me then that I wasn’t mature enough. However, whatever I may or may not have achieved as a student, I was very soon introduced to the delights of underage drinking. I was a rather heavy underage drinker, I regret to say!

8. My drinking has moderated significantly with age; I would have been in serious trouble had it not! But I would be loath to give up my long-standing membership of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

9. After completing a doctorette in Manchester University (on multi-objective optimisation – if you must!), my first job was in Liverpool. The office I worked in was just a few hundred yards from the site of the old Cavern Club, where the Beatles used to play in the early days. When I was in Liverpool, this was just a car park, but every day, Beatles devotees from all around the world used to come to take photos of this car park.

(And incidentally – that shelter in the middle of the roundabout at the top of Penny Lane used to be Sgt Pepper’s Fried Chicken. This was back in the mid- to late- 1980s: I guess it has all changed now.)

10. It was in 1989 that my job took us (I say “us”, as I was married by then) down to London: I found gainful employment with British Airways, for whom I subsequently worked for nearly 18 years. I am down here still, on the outskirts of the great metropolis. But getting into the centre of London is such a hassle, that I rarely bother. Unless it’s a trip to the Scottish Malt Whisky Society.

11. I am a very nostalgic person, and am always looking back to my past with misty-eyed affection. This is often considered reprehensible, though I never understood why. So I was delighted to find the conclusions of a recent scientific study apparently vindicating my nostalgic bent. We are, all of us, products of our past: hold on to it, says I!

I have done eleven now, haven’t I? Right, on to the next part.

But this post is long enough. Let’s take a break.

7×7: A blog chain mail

Guy Savage from the blog His Futile Preoccupations has nominated this blog to participate in one of those things called “blog memes”, or “blog chain mails”, or whatever. In this, the nominated party has to:

1) tell everyone something about his or her self that nobody else knows

2) link to a post that fits the following categories: most beautiful piece; most helpful piece; most popular piece; most underrated piece; most pride-worthy piece; most surprisingly successful piece; most controversial piece.

And, finally,

3) Nominate 7 other bloggers to participate – presumably having ensured that they have not already been nominated by some other blogger

What larks!

OK, let’s get started.

1) Firstly, something about me that no-one knows, and, obviously, one that I feel appropriate to reveal on this blog: in my spare time, I enjoy having a go at translating poems by Rabindranath Tagore from Bengali into English. This is not in expectation of publication – let alone fame or fortune – but because I enjoy the immersion in Tagore’s poetry that this exercise involves; and also because in attempting to arrange words on a page in order to create something that may be read as a poem in English, I find myself gaining insights into the nature of poetry itself that I don’t think I would have had merely as a reader.

2) Most beautiful post: I don’t know that any of my writing is notable for “beauty” – however one defines it – but the occasional post in which I allow myself to be nostalgic about my childhood years – such as this one – has associations for me personally for which the word “beautiful” is perhaps not misapplied. Even when it is about Dracula.

Most helpful post: Some years before I started on this blog, I had, on an internet book group that has since become defunct, led a group read of War and Peace; and since I still had on my hard disk the detailed part-by-part synopses I had written, I thought I’d put them up here. The number of hits these posts get, as well as some mails I have received on them, indicate that they have been of some help.

Most popular post: According the the statistics, my musings on Wuthering Heights and Romanticism has had the most hits. I wonder if I should revise this in light of my having changed my mind on certain matters since I wrote this.

Most controversial piece: Given that I frequently use this blog to have a rant about something or other, I am frankly surprised how uncontroversial this blog is, on the whole. But I suppose this post, in which I have a go at certain types of genre writing and at claims made by certain genre writers, aroused a fair bit of controversy.

Most surprisingly successful piece: In one of my above-mentioned rants, I made some quite intemperate comments about the importance of teaching literature in schools. Now, I am certainly no educationalist, and I certainly hadn’t expected, at the time of writing this post, that it would beCome one of the most popular in terms of hits.

Most underrated piece: This entire blog started because, to celebrate (if “celebrate” is the word I am looking for) my 50th year, i decided to read through all of Shakespeare’s plays; and, once I had done that, I found I had written copious notes on each of those plays, purely for my own personal reference. It was then I decided it might be a good idea to polish them up a bit, and stick them all up on a blog somewhere. These Shakespeare posts I thought would be the centrepiece of this blog, but they get very few hits. The post on Othello, especially, I remember spending quite a bit of time on – although, as ever, when I re-read it, I feel I haven’t succeeded in saying all I wanted to say.

Most pride-worthy piece: I suppose it’s this one on Joyce’s Ulysses, in which I think I did manage to say most of what I wanted to say.

3) And now to pick 7 others. So, in no particular order, here they are (they’re not all literary ones):

Obooki’s Obloquy

Somewhere Boy

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Washtenaw Flaneurade

Tales of a Software Engineer


Caravana de Recuerdos

The problem with putting together lists is that one has to leave so many out! If any of these bloggers have been nominated already, please do let me know, and I’ll revise my list accordingly.

But thanks for nominating me, Guy: it’s been great fun!