Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Arbitrary Rules

I read an interesting post today on my sister-in-law's blog. The post, which contained a list of 100 books, is designed to be a meme. You mark which books you've read, which ones you haven't read, which ones you loved and which ones you hated or intend never to read.

With a list like this, one might expect to see several "classics". And sure enough, the first book on the list was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are few Americans that have not heard of this book, and your knee-jerk reaction was probably one of the two: delight if you are female or some kind of groan if you are male. Being male and having attempted to read this "classic" once, I fall squarely into the "groan of pain" camp. But that's not my point.

Book 2 is The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. This also falls into the "if you have never heard of this book, it is because you live under a rock" camp. The list goes on and on, inluding The Harry Potty Series by JK Rowling (like The Lord of the Rings, it is no longer classified as a single book, apparently), The Chronicles of Narnia (seven more books just became one), The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (didn't we just cover that one?), Brave New World, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, you name it. One of my favorites was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Hailed by The New York Times as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation, Truman Capote dismissed it by saying, "That's not writing, that's typing."

Hey, how did Harry Potty make it to the list, anyway? The Da Vinci Code? Don't get me wrong, I liked those too. But aren't those a little recent to be on the list? Why are they on the list? Because whoever made the list liked them, and they included them. And now that the list is on the move, making its way from blog to blog, somebody (notably the people that post it) will start to see it as an authority.

Where does this kind of authority come from? Easy. Somebody said something and we believed them. Why does red wine go better with red meat, and white wine goes better with fish and poultry? Because somebody that we thought knew a lot about wine said so, and we believed them. It turns out there are red wines that go well with fish and chicken, and there are white wines that go well with red meat. How do we remember what goes with what? Those are a lot of rules to remember. Let's ask somebody smart for a simple answer, and just go with that.

My sister was on a bus once that was testing a new TV system. They would post various anouncements on the screens to help riders stay informed. When they ran out of important things to say, they literally started making things up. Her example: "For a healthy alternative to soda, try drinking diet soda." WTF, mate? Article after article has been published about the health risks of diet soda. Then again, why do we believe those articles? Because somebody smart-sounding wrote them, or we believe that the person who wrote them got their facts from somebody smart.

There are a lot of good books on the list. There is also a lot of crap on that list. Which ones are crap depends on who you are. As a (straight) male, I am wired to consider anything by Jane Austen a waste of time. Then again, I get my kicks out of reading books with titles like Mastering Regular Expressions and Perl Best Practices. Again, that's how I'm wired. If you're wired differently than me (and for the love of all that is good and holy, I hope that you are not) then my literary opinions should be of little, if any concern to you. And my own personal opinions on anything should never be taken as gospel or any other sort of authority, unless you're looking to buy me a Christmas present or something.

All that I'm saying is, maybe we should stop believing things just because somebody that appeared smart said it. Maybe we should look into things ourselves. And maybe we should stop considering ourselves "educated" just because we read some book that some guy (or girl) wrote. And most importantly, we need to stop giving people authority just because they said they had authority. The only reason some people have authority is because they got people to believe that they do.

Okay, enough of my anarchistic rantings. As you were.


  1. Sense and Sensibility is actually a pretty good book, although Pride and Prejudice is better. If you want to attack Jane Austen, Emma is a much easier target.

  2. Oddly enough, I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice far more than my wife did. Maybe I'm just sentimental. Other than that, we might not be that far off; the only reason I would put off reading Mastering Regular Expressions is doubt that it contains anything I haven't already learned.

  3. I agree with you on this one. This list is really a way for elitist book snobs to feel superior to the uneducated masses. It's interesting that with only one exception, all the books on the list are fictional, so this list is meant to be an examination of culture thru literature.

    In all objectivity, books aren't even a superior medium for literature. Graphic Novels, Movies, TV shows and Video Games are all completely valid forms of story telling, and it's easy to name examples in each of them that far outshine the storytelling of nearly every book on the list. The medium is really unimportant, it's only the story that matters. Too bad there's so few good stories on the list.


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