meme’s the word

Bookishjenluc_1In 1976, the estimable Richard Dawkins inadvertently created a monster. That’s the year he coined the term "meme". Technically, according to Wikipedia, it refers to "a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind." Which is a very fancy way of saying people like to tell other people about books, movies, comics, jokes, even consumer products that they like. And they’ll do so obsessively, thereby creating inadvertent fads, like the sudden popularity of Cosmopolitan cocktails, the drink of choice for the Chanel-clad, Manolo-shod, man-chasing femmes fatales featured in Sex and the City.

Little did Dawkins know that one day there would be this thing called the Internet, a huge interlocking World Wide Web that would make it incredibly easy to replicate bits of cultural information. And as more and more people linked to the Web, they would start compulsively compiling lists and random quizzes, gathering it all together on individual blogs, all of which would obsessively link to each other. It would become such a ubiquitous phenomenon that corporations would seek to exploit it through viral marketing — itself a kind of post-modern meme.

It’s tough to resist the urge to participate in memes when one is jacked into the blogosphere. Today is no exception: we have been "tagged" by Kristin A., physicist, artist, writer, and dungeon master — okay, we made that last one up. She’s the proprietor of the Radioactive Banana blog, and since we like Kristin, and can’t resist a good book meme, we offer up the following:

1. One Book That Changed Your Life: Books in general changed my life, by exposing me to stories, concepts and ideas that my conservative Christian upbringing never would have presented to me. So it’s tough to just pick one (it’s tough to do so for all these categories). But I read a horror story (author unknown) as a child called "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," in which the narrator turned out to be the notorious serial killer at the very end. It was my first exposure to the Unreliable Narrator, and made a lasting impression on me. I’ve also come to realize, many years later, how great an influence Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night has had in shaping some of my thinking over the years. Also, Sayers always had obscure literary epigrams and references sprinkled throughout her novels, thereby introducing me to many writers I might not otherwise have discovered. (Jen-Luc Piquant scoffs at such plebeian choices, and insists the book that changed her life was Isaac Newton’s Principia. To wit: "A gripping page turner! I couldn’t put it down!")

2. One Book You’ve Read More Than Once: Again, there’s more than one, but one of the most frequently re-read is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It’s a perfect book. No wonder she wrote little else. (Jen-Luc regularly peruses Antoine Saint-Expury’s Le Petit Prince, "because it’s short." And because she loves the whole scene about taming the wild fox.)

3. One Book You’d Want on a Desert Island: Depends on the circumstances. Am I alone? Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything would make the time just fly by. If not alone, and my companion is particularly annoying, I might just want to peruse John Emsley’s The Elements of Murder: A History of Poisons — you know, just in case it becomes necessary to take drastic measures. If I really, really like said companion, it’d be handy to have a copy of the Kama Sutra and the Complete Poems of John Donne. (Jen-Luc would like to be stranded with the complete works of Alexander Dumas.)

4. One Book That Made You Laugh: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The Antichrist is born and grows up, well, "normal" in a small English village, while an angel and a demon join forces to avert the planned Battle of Armageddon. How could you not love a book that features cameo appearances by the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse? (Jen-Luc swears she found David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System to be a nonstop laugh-riot, with its snooty in-jokes about Wittgenstein and impenetrable membranes.)

5. One Book That Made You Cry: Passages by Connie Willis. Willis is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers, precisely because she makes such excellent creative use of hot topics in scientific research. With Passages, she explored neurochemistry, dream states, and near-death experiences, neatly tied up in a compelling plot and beautifully developed characters. (Jen-Luc Piquant never cries, certainly not over literature. Those were allergies causing her eyes to water as she read Les Miserables.)

6. One Book You Wish Had Been Written: All books that can be written, eventually will be written, so I won’t even attempt to answer this. (Jen-Luc, on the other hand, is a bit of a narcissist and wishes someone would write Pixelated! Confessions of a Faux-French Avatar. She’d do so herself, but is preoccupied with her forthcoming translation of the collected novels of Georges Sand.)

7. One Book You Wish Had Never Been Written: Just about anything by Jacques Derrida, starting with Of Grammatology. (Jen-Luc is horrified by my suggestion, as Derrida is like an intellectual father figure to her deconstructionist self. She wishes she could turn back time and keep Madonna’s tawdry pictorial essay, Sex, from ever being published.)

8. One Book You Are Currently Reading: Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. I was a big fan of his earlier novels Flaubert’s Parrot and Staring at the Sun, but in all honesty wasn’t crazy about his more recent work. This latest novel, though, seems promising, even though I’ve only read the first couple of chapters. It’s about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — how could it possibly be bad? (Jen-Luc is currently perusing the novels of J. Sheridan LeFanu, arguably one of the earliest mystery writers, albeit with a supernatural bent; right now she’s on Wylder’s Hand.)

9. One Book You Have Been Meaning to Read: Just one? I have a whole shelf of intriguing tomes stacked up and waiting to be read. But since I must choose, I’ll opt for Jared Diamond’s Collapse. It’s Serious and Significant, and hence one feels one ought to read it. It’s got great word of mouth. It’s also dauntingly thick, and despite my best intentions, is gathering dust on a corner shelf somewhere. (For her part, Jen-Luc has been procrastinating about reading Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy.)

10. Now Tag Five People: Um, no. I just can’t bring myself to pass on the equivalent of a chain letter, no matter how literary. The madness has to end somewhere, and let it end with me. (Cue Braveheart war cry: "FREEDOM!") So I hereby break the addictive "book meme chain" — unless any readers would care to add their own choices in the comments section. Tag! You’re it!

14 thoughts on “meme’s the word”

  1. Well on a desert island between getting to grips with the finer points of the kama sutra, rereading the complete works of Aleaxander Dumas just to pass the time, and the DIY on raft building that Kristin A suggests, in case my girl friday companion throws a tantrum or wobbler and I want to anchore off shore … not sure I’d have time to read much else. However if the bounty on the paradise island was divine and so plentiful, and the said companion one who made me feel like I’d never want to leave, then perhaps I’d have in the bag “anam cara” by John O’Donohue. Easy to read in a jiffy or an afternoon, sitting in the garden, sitting by the pool. One I can pick up and read and read and reread endlessly just for something to do, especially if sitting next to you.

  2. Jen, I can’t believe you’ve gone here! Memes?
    Oh, well, I’ll play:
    Changed my Life – The Lorax, Dr. Seuss
    More than Once – The Unfair Advantage, Mark Donohue and Paul vanValkenbergh; Where the Wild Things Are, M. Sendak; Fox in Socks, Dr. Seuss (aloud, the faster the better), Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman; Stalking the Nightmare, Harlan Ellison
    Desert Island – (Kama Sutra? Oh MY!) I’m going with the Collected Works of W. Shakespeare
    Make You Laugh – Good Omens as well. I think I’ve gotten about a dozen people to read it over the years. Solzhenitsyn’s complete Gulag Archipleago comes in a close second, though.
    Make Me Cry – Books don’t make me cry, movies do (like “Brian’s Song” and “Zoolander”), Ender’s Game came as close as any, though.
    Wish I had Written – Dune, Frank Herbert; Flux, Stephen Baxter; The Stars My Destination/Tiger, Tiger, Alfred Bester
    I Wish Had Never been written – Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls; damn near anything by William Faulkner, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Heinlen (jumped the shark with this one); Bio of a Space Tyrant, Piers Anthony; Dianetics and Invasion Earth, L Ron Hubbard
    Currently Reading – HA! I just moved this from the Meaning to Read Pile: Collapse, Jared Diamond. Also, Quantum Questions, Ken Wilber
    Books I Have Been Meaning to Read – Black Bodies and Quantum Cats, um, ….

  3. Thanks for playing, Jennifer and Jen-Luc! I knew you’d have some interesting books to mention since I saw your active postings on novel recommendations over at Cosmic Variance a couple of weeks back.

  4. Interesting choices.
    For me, I’ll just answer #1, and that’d be The Power Of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. It pushed me out of myself and I came back several dozens of books later a better person.

  5. Yes, bc, occasionally we like to take the blog to places where it’s never gone before — it’s all about stretching the boundaries while maintaining a healthy balance among topics — and today that place was memes. But we do feel a little cheap. 🙂 Rest assured, the next few postings will be more in line with our standard fare.
    My favorite Joseph Campbell book is “Voyage of the Hero.” It influenced me tremendously in college when I was studying myth and metaphor.

  6. 1. One Book That Changed Your Life: The Hobbit. I read it at some impossibley young age after seeing the cartoon and it kicked me off into a life of books.
    2. One Book You’ve Read More Than Once: Ditto that on “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. I will name my son Atticus. Why did Lee never write another ?… maybe ’cause Capote wrote it.
    3. One Book You’d Want on a Desert Island: I have a single volume of the complete works of B. Shakespeare, which I’ve never cracked. That’d keep me busy for awhile.
    4. One Book That Made You Laugh: Sex and Death to the Age 14, Spalding Gray
    5. One Book That Made You Cry: A River Runs Through It. Less about fly fishing and more about fathers, brothers, and their relationships. “A real professor. Damnation. I’m proud of you.” And of course any book with a wedding.
    6. One Book You Wish Had Been Written: My biography?… so I can see how it all turns out.
    7. One Book You Wish Had Never Been Written: The one that comes to mind that I’ve never read, but probably wish had never been written, would be “The Da Vinci Code”. Actually definitely “The Da Vinci Code”, but I’m sure there are worse.
    8. One Book You Are Currently Reading: The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich. An oldie, but goodie.
    10. Now Tag Five People: Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, Jesus H. Christ, my friend Dave, Rebecca West

  7. Dear Jen,
    Finally got a chance to peruse blogs again–been working too much this week. Said comment about said tirade was said with a wink, but wow, you misunderstood my remark about being hip. Goes like this–you try to be hip, you ain’t. Hip, like style, is what you are, and if you care what others think, well, that’s where victim-hood comes into play.
    Oh by the way, my remarks are always in fun, don’t take ’em wrong. Who listens to me anyway? Really enjoy your writing–keep it up.

  8. Jen, I’m kinda pulling your leg about the Memes – part of this whole blogging thing and building an audience requires interaction with readers (as much as those of us who write are loath to do so). You’re engaging, that’s good.
    Mr Armitage, I’ve reread “Rise and Fall” a few times, you’re right, it’s a goodie.
    Had to remove the dust jacket from it though, I always felt very uncomfortable with that big swastika staring at me from my bookshelves. Creepy.
    I’d read “The Da Vinci Code” several years ago, and found it to be a decent yarn, nothing more; roughly the literary equivalent of a decent graphic novel. I’d rather the “Celestine Prophecy” had not been written, but I see your point.

  9. 1. Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, by Isaac Asimov. A friend had a copy of this in sixth grade, and we challeneged each other to read through it faster. (I won.) In the span of a couple weeks, we filled our heads with the history of human progress, from fire to Fermat’s Last Theorem.
    2. A tie: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov; The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Both taught me important things about what a book should be.
    3. Gotta go with Shakespeare on the desert island.
    4. So MANY books have made me laugh, but to pick just one, I’ll say American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Near the end, there’s a throwaway line about Baron Samedi — voodoo figure of Death — possessing the body of a young Goth girl from Knoxville, because she already has her own top hat.
    5. What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? — the death of Arline Feynman.
    6. Atoms and the Void: The Autobiography of Democritus of Abdera
    7. The Malleus Maleficarum. Derrida and Ayn Rand have provided too much amusement value for me to really wish them into oblivion.
    8. Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, by A. Zee.
    9. To top #8 in geekiness, I’ll say Conceptual Mathematics by Lawvere and Schanuel.

  10. Speaking of reading materials (weak segue alert!!!), what about those you just love to hate? People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, etc.—they’re around the office all the time and I just can’t help myself. I’ve become rather cynical about current pop culture. It’s just so shallow and transparent in my opinion that it’s become its own joke. An uncool-nerdy-geeky attitude? Perhaps. But try reading some of the comments (or lyrics, for that matter) on and see what you think. Or check your reaction to the following two words: Paris Hilton. If you get this uncontrollable urge to say, “Oh, please!” you’ll know what I’m talking about.

  11. I only read tabloids in the supermarket checkout line, or in the dentist’s office, and while I can be cynical about it, let’s face it, those things are addictively entertaining in some twisted way, even if it’s just to shake our heads in dismay and go “Oh please!” I find Britney more appalling than Paris these days, and am admittedly a little fascinated by the massive meltdown that has become Lindsey Lohan, and the exploits of Brangelina… That being said, in general, there’s a great deal to savor and appreciate in pop culture, but celebrity worship isn’t included in that.
    HE: Actually I didn’t misunderstand your comment about being hip. We agree that those who try to be hip, just aren’t. My point is that not caring what people think does not _automatically_ make you hip. It might make you cool, though.
    Blake: I loved Borges’ babel book, and who’s to say there’s not an infinite library somewhere? I’m also a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, one of which features a bottomless well of Lost Plots, books that never quite saw print. It was actually kind of sad.
    And if Rebecca West or Jesus H. Christ chooses to comment on this thread, we can all thank (or blame) Peter for tagging them. 🙂

  12. And I hope you feel free to visit and comment at my place too … the ‘lighter’ side of you. There’s a lot out there to read and comment on, however even with the internet allowing us to travel anywhere almost at the speed of light, one can only stretch one self so thin in this 3D+T and needs be selective, where one spends one T or coofee time. So, Here’s wishing you another fun & glorious day. Look forward to thenext post.

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