Monday, May 5, 2008

Book Meme and the Literacy Meme

I'll start by saying I blame Liz for this meme:

These are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing's users. [Edit: I use Goodreads, which doesn't have this sort of metadata. Edit #2: And it's free.]

Bold what you have read, italicize those you started but couldn't finish, and strike through what you couldn't stand.
Add an asterisk* to those you've read more than once.
Underline those on your to-read list.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina

Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
Atlas Shrugged?
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha*
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault's Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels and Demons
The Inferno?
The Satanic Verses?
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

Oliver Twist
Gulliver's Travels?
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela's Ashes : A Memoir
The God of Small Things
A People's History of the United States : 1492-present

A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Cloud Atlas

The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an Inquiry into Values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity's Rainbow
The Hobbit
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

So what does this tell you about me? There are many books out there that I haven't read and just as many that I don't wish to read. Of the ones from this list, the only one I've been re-reading is Lolita, which I really enjoyed the first time. I'm in the middle of re-reading it because I wanted to re-examine the weirdness between HH's obsession with Lola and his observations of the mundane details of bourgeois--oops, I mean middle class--American culture.

The only book here that I've recently read was Guns, Germs & Steel, which was two years ago. All the others I've read during high school with The Hobbit being the exception (5th grade summer). Moby Dick was a pain to try to read, but I approached it after finishing the 8th grade so I'll have to revisit it at some point to see what I think of it now that my approach to reading has changed.

Of the ones I've already read, I want to re-read Crime & Punishment and GGS; the former because there's a recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that is supposed to be the best thus far, and the latter because the ideas there have seeped out into what I've read this year and I want to reacquaint myself with their nuances.

Many books with question marks are ones that I may read, but friends have given me bad or ambivalent reviews about them. For example, I don't really look forward to reading any Ayn Rand since she's supposedly a terrible writer. However, since I still run into people who espouse her philosophy based on her books and the work of her institute, I sometimes feel that I need to have the necessary ammunition to counter their idiocy. And reading her books would give me a better understanding as to how to do that.

I'm a fairly slow reader when it comes to novels or books so I tend to stick to short stories, essays, articles, and the occasional novella. I guess what I seek when I read is a high idea density to length ratio, which is almost pulpy in execution. This may also be why I like comics and movies; they tend to have this high ratio.

This meme reminds me of the recent lamentations about the state of reading in America. (See the NEA's report and Ursula Le Guin's response in The Atlantic, where the entirety of the latter is only available to subscribers unfortunately.) The list is comprised primarily of bestsellers or "classics" so the originator of the meme presumes that everyone would be familiar with them. Does that familiarity mean people have read the majority of the books? Does reading a significant number of these books translate into being a "well read" or literate person? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that many of the books are classics and thus heavily referenced in our culture so every educated person needs, at the very least, to know how that book fits as a cultural reference. No, in that, granted, it's still possible to conduct an intelligent conversation with someone who hasn't read the same books. However, these conversations may not have the same sense of depth or cultural and social resonance that they otherwise may have. And this was one of the (many) points raised in Le Guin's Atlantic essay, that books are a "social vector" in that it spurs a shared sense of culture and literary camaraderie. These types of conversations and the literary references are, in one sense, the verbal analogues to online dialogues/writings that have hyperlinks imbedded in them. So the existence of these types of online memes, their proliferation, and the responses to them can be seen as indicators of cultural health.

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1 comment:

Liz said...

I agree with your point that memes such as this indicate cultural health and whatnot, but I wonder if one is required to read these books in order to participate in the 'social vector' created by them. As you can see from my rendition of the meme, I haven't read many of these books and I don't plan to. That doesn't mean I don't know anything about them and can't carry on an intelligent conversation about them. There are many other ways of learning the cultural content of the classics without slogging through them. Not that I'm against reading. I love reading and I think everyone should read. We just don't all have to read the exact same things. Where's the fun in that?