Monday, November 22, 2010

when a meme goes rogue...

For the past few years, we've done a fun "meme" for the holidays- just something to do to have fun with our blogging friends. Some people don't like them and others live for them. With me, I'm sort of in between: I enjoy doing certain ones, but I can also get irritated by others. Recently, I actually happened upon an interesting meme that has made the rounds on the web and is currently making the rounds on Facebook. A friend tagged me on a note about a list of books created by the BBC, wherein the BBC also claimed that out of those hundred books, the average person has only read six.
Looking over the list I counted that I had read somewhere in the vicinity of 40 of them, but the titles on the list began to bother me. For the sake of brevity, I won't include the entire list here, but here is a link to the list so you can examine it for yourself. Here is the top ten:
1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

Now over the entire list Austen appears many times, as do other Victorian novelists. While Austen's works are listed separately on the list, other authors find themselves condensed to a single "Works" listing. Admittedly, I am not a Jane Austen fan, but I am also not the intended audience perhaps. Still, the list is very odd. No Hemingway, Poe, or Twain - no Greek classics, very few early novelist, etc. And also included are some very recent novels, that while popular today, may not really endure to achieve "classic" status. How can this list be a true "classic works" list. It seems more arbitrary, than something deliberated and thought out.

Being the natural skeptic I am (it's inherited), I began to poke around. Come to find out- not only is the list truly arbitrary- the BBC connection is at best, confused, and at worst, intentionally bogus. Here is the back story: In 2003, the BBC did a poll of Britons asking them to nominate their favorite novel to determine what the nation’s best loved novel was. The poll was called The Big Read. The result was a list- but not this one. The list from the original poll is somewhat different, but similar enough. It included many books that appear on our meme/Facebook list, some different ones and in different order. What gives? A little more digging reveals that in 2007 the UK paper, The Guardian did a new poll in honor of World Book Day. The resulting list was entitled Books You Can't Live without. Now take a gander at that list-does that look familiar? It should- it's our same list.
This list has actually made the rounds on Facebook last year and around the net as well. This is where the trail goes a little cold, but it seems that someone had taken this list and turned into a "meme" two years ago, confusing the BBC as the source or deciding to attribute the BBC for credibility's sake. Again, at best a connection made in confusion or inflated as it was passed around; and at worst, a bogus attribution to conflate the credibility of the list. Further inquiry has resulted in zero news stories or online articles that actually mention the BBC ever claiming that most people have only read 6 of the books on any type of list; much less their own.

Is this just a fanciful addition by an Internet blogger or Facebook conspirator to have fun? Perhaps. But what it does accomplish is what any good meme or "greatest whatever" list does- turn up the conversation. It's as simple as 1-2-3.
1. Interest/Connection: "A list about books- I like books. I wonder which ones are on the list that I've read?"
2. Resentment/Controversy: "What? Lemme see that list. The BBC said what? That's malarkey!"
3. Competition:"I bet I have read more than six of these! I'll pass that around. We'll show them." Thereby resulting in a sure-fire meme for people to pass around and argue about books. Yes, it is kind of false advertising- and the BBC is unfairly maligned. Do I have to really tell you that you should always take what you read on the Internet with a grain of salt? I didn't think so- but still we shouldn't be so blind as to buy into the BBC claim without doing at least a little fact checking. However it has people talking about books and perhaps inspired others to read more. And in and of itself, that is not a bad thing.

Let's take the opportunity to scratch beneath the surface of this list and look a little further into what lists like this, that result from polling, can reveal about ourselves and our culture. The characteristic about this list that initially started my digging around was the lack of many literary classics on the list, and an over-representation of recent books. Even that the list singles out so much Jane Austen was interesting. During the last decade or so, many of these books were made into movies or television adaptations. Does that mean people are associating having seen the movie with having read the book? ("Well, I saw the movie, so I know what it's about.") Or are more people reading the books after being introduced to them by the movie version? Certainly there is a popularity association between books and movie adaptations- sales of both feed one another. A cursory glance at the list and I can see several book series that have been hugely popular movie series in the last decade: The Harry Potter Series, the Lord of the Rings series and the Chronicles of Narnia just to name a few.

Then again- recent studies also show that perhaps we tend to *ahem* shall we say, exaggerate how much and what we read. It's something that plays into perceived status and social standings, and in western democracies, aside from money, the thing people use to signify social status is education. In 2009, The Guardian conducted another poll for World Book day, this time asked people to fess up about their reading habits. The results were interesting: roughly 65% of people asked admitted to lying about the classic books they have read. The book most have lied about reading: George Orwell's 1984. I wonder if people were thinking of that time in school when their teacher asked if they had read for the test...? While some of the results are interesting and some worrisome, Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust is quoted in the article as finding the overall results as reassuring: "It shows that reading has a huge cultural value in terms of the way we present ourselves as intelligent and engaged people."

The question we have to ask, however, is this really demonstrating that reading has a true cultural value or does the appearance of being well -read have the true value? Over the past several decades many short-hand books, such as Cultural Literacy, have shown that perhaps our modern culture is short changing the cultural pillars of our past. Past generations have often demonstrated at least a reverence and in some cases, a intimacy, with history, literature, art, etc- the cultural artifacts and cornerstones of civilization. While a large portion of society was more concerned with tilling the earth and earning their daily bread, a respect for education and at least a familiarity with books and history, was embedded within. My great grandmother, for example, was raised on a North Carolina Tobacco farm, and raised her children on her own farm as well. But that did not stop her from becoming a voracious reader and intimately familiar with history and developing a lifelong passion for learning. She was not alone either: in 1910, when my grandmother was a child, the average illiteracy rate among children was about 2.2%. Total average, including adults was roughly 7%. However, consider several circumstances that may give some interesting context for that number: formal school enrollment was fairly low (lower among poor whites, immigrant families newly come to the country and blacks). Also the average drop out rate past elementary school years increases with each successive year. It was not uncommon for people, especially in rural areas, to not go beyond their 5th or 6th year of formal education. Yet the average illiteracy rate among school-age children was still just 2.2%.
Flash forward to the present. The adult illiteracy rate in the US in 2009 was estimated to be 1%-meaning 99% of the adult population is functionally literate. Sounds good right? However, that only makes us tied for 21st place among the nations of the world. Many of those in 21 place with us are first world and developing nations. But these incorporate only the very basic reading and writing levels. When degrees of literacy are incorporated, the results are even worse. Consider this information from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and the US Department of Education: "One measure of literacy is the percentage of adults who perform at four achievement levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. In each type of literacy, 13 percent of adults were at or above Proficient (indicating they possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities) in 2003. Twenty-two percent of adults were Below Basic (indicating they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in document literacy."

Considering that average enrollments are much, much higher and drop out rates are much lower compared to 100 years ago, and that the literacy gap between whites and minorities have narrowed dramatically, why is illiteracy such an increasingly large problem. Why are current generations of students increasingly culturally illiterate? Is there a connect also to recent studies that demonstrate a dramatic decline in historical, economic and civic literacy as well? 100 years ago, my grandmother's father was a farmer, but he, like many others, had an intimate familiarity with US history, was at worst functionally literate, a working knowledge with matters of economics and civics. These things, especially as evidence as shown, were weighed heavily in our society and considered important for each and every citizen to know. A similar feeling of responsibility to know and learn these things can be seen among new citizens and immigrants seeking full citizenship, but not so much among our current generation of students.

Even in my own personal experiences with my students, I note a disinterest and devaluing of cultural literacy and even just reading in general. In one of my humanities classes that I teach when we discuss traditional forms of media like books, I see a very clear gap when it comes to readers and those who use the library for anything other than the Internet. One of my colleagues from the Sociology dept might be able to interpret what I see more precisely, but one thing that stands out is that a majority of average people in their early 20s and younger are become less and less of traditional readers. We know newspaper readership is virtually nil among this age group- but so are "book habits." On average they are less familiar with current books than previous generations and even less so with literature and works, other than what they might have had to encounter in school. When I informally poll my students (these are college age students, but the age range is fairly diverse as they are in an atypical college situation leaning towards adult learning) a majority of them have never read and in most case completely unfamiliar with: mythology, American 19th century literature, early 20th century British or American books, British Victorian lit- and quite frankly had never even heard of any classical literature or plays.

Some familiarity is expressed for books they remember assigned to them in school: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and something along the lines of The Red Badge of Courage- but most cannot recall the plot or main themes of the books. At best, they remember the title, and this is despite the fact that I know there are good teachers out there who are trying to introduce these works to their students. In some ways students are doing what they can to get by- using the Internet, etc for help with papers, but I think our culture is also somewhat to blame as it has increasingly devalued anything from our past, western civilization in general, and devalued anything that takes a good deal of time to digest and process. If it can't be encapsulated into a sound bite or hyped on the latest entertainment news site- they don't really care.

For me the unintended consequence of it all is that while Technology has made so much of the past, of literature, of information more and more accessible to so many more people- many more members of the "technology generation" are becoming less and less consumers of said information. Studies have shown that third world countries that are now beginning to have greater access to technology and overall have improved more technologically, young students in these countries are not only becoming more exposed to information from around the world, they are also becoming better readers, retaining more knowledge and becoming more interested in learning. In our society, where technology is so abundant - we actually see a decline among younger demographics in terms of active reading and cultural literacy.

What does this all mean- I'm not completely sure, other than to note parents and teachers have an uphill battle- but I think one that needs to be fought? I look back at when I was a teenager and had someone told me that one day I could affordably own a small, thin and portable device that could store a vast library of books that I could read anywhere, anytime - or that I could own a device that would store many movies and play them back- I would've been incredulous that that could happen in my lifetime. And yet - here we are; and I am still amazed sometimes that I can own a library of my favorite classic movies to watch when I want or store tons of books on an eReader.

Where does that leave us? Well, remember that this rambling examination all began with looking at a little Internet meme that went rogue. It's fun to discuss what books we may or may have not read, but we also need to find ways as a society to place more value on reading, on great books, on classics, on history and civics. We need to reverse the decline of cultural, historical, economic, and civic literacy. If we don't, all the Internet sites, Tech gadgets and webisodes in the world won't stop the freefall that is occurring in Western civilization. Familiarity with these things not only promotes a cohesiveness to the citizens in our nation, it also serves to instruct, teach or remind us that our Nation is unique and that our freedoms are not only precious, but the "Grand Experiment" our Founders set us upon hundreds of years ago, is worth continuing and defending. So next time you happen to have conversation with someone about an old movie or classic book, and they dismissively tell you "Who cares about that old stuff?" Tell them you do- and that they should. And tell 'em why.

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read.


Retro Hound said...

I was just watching something called The Truth Project that was talking about what happens when people lose a sense of history.

I am proud to state that, for no reason at all, I just started reading Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground.

J.C. Loophole said...

RH- I will have to look that up (Truth Project)- and kudos on Dostoevsky. I've got Brothers Karamazov on my reading stack to start soon. I've been so much into non fiction lately- I've got to throw in some more good fiction. Other than my regular does of Dr. Seuss that is.

Trevor said...

You have a fascinating and I think cogent theory going here. I'd love to hear some practical tips for getting people to stop watching Snooki and starting reading classical literature.


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