In 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!