For the last couple of weeks, Facebook has been tripping with gushy status updates of people eager to list the 10 books that ‘changed their thinking’. After the company analysed the 130,000 responses, it appears most of the books that made the cut were written for children (among the top five, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).
The fact that children’s fiction reigns supreme on a top 10 list of adults’ favourite books is evidence that readers, more than anything else, are seeking escapist pleasure and entertainment from fiction. It’s typical of the hysterically shrill tone of social media that lofty terms like ‘changed their thinking’ come into being and go viral. That technically applies only to people like Mark Chapman, so influenced by The Catcher in the Rye that he shot John Lennon and quoted from a passage in the book at his sentencing. The book changed his ‘thinking’ for sure but the rest of us are not counting on a life changing experience of staggering proportions from a novel. If we can be immersed and wholly absorbed in a work that banishes other random thoughts from entering our heads, albeit briefly, the writer has done his job well.
Of course, books read in adolescence carry a particular kind of significance that sticks in our hard drives long after we become adults. As much as the joy of reading, it carries the recollection of who we were when we read them — and of a less cluttered, carefree life. Oscar Wilde’s unforgettable character Lord Henry cannily observed, ‘The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.’ (Infuriatingly, The Picture of Dorian Gray is listed at a pathetic number 97 on the Facebook list). Youth may vanish in a trice, but the memory of it lingers forever after — and so do the books that shaped our formative years.
I have been poring over my friends’ book lists with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Note to self: really must attempt The World According to Garp one last time. Can there be a better way to judge anyone than by their reverence of Paulo Coelho? The pleasurable indignation of the intellectual high horse. But when you get off it, consider, Agatha Christie doesn’t figure on the top 100 Facebook list. But, arguably Christie’s most diabolical thriller And Then There Were None is listed at Number 253 on Amazon with a four-and-a-half star rating out of five. Under the specific category of crime, thriller and mystery it’s at number 13 of all time greats. Conversely, Pride and Prejudice, which makes it to the Facebook top 20 and is a rite of passage for any student starting out on the classics, is at Number 2,006 in Amazon Bestsellers. It may be comparing apples and oranges and there are several ways to interpret data but it seems readers have derived more pleasure out of Christie but didn’t consider it life changing. Conversely, Pride and Prejudice has survived the proverbial test of time because it’s theme of marriage remains eternal. It has also stayed in people’s imagination because it’s been made into films and TV mini-series six times over.
It’s never been so easy to pretend to have read everything, without actually having read anything at all. The easy way out is to catch the film of the book you never got around to or easier still, distill the relevant bits from Twitter or Google. I suspect that happened a lot for Harry Potter. Even for a diehard fan, getting through those complicated, repetitive and endless tomes wasn’t easy. Social media feeds on the terror of being revealed as culturally lacking so in the frenetic keeping-up game, people are happily enough, rediscovering Dostoevsky. In a very study published in the journal Science last year, researchers reached the overwhelming conclusion that after reading literary fiction as opposed to popular stuff people performed better on tests measuring empathy and emotional intelligence. So, for example, reading Crime and Punishment will do more for your social skills than Gone Girl. Not to knock Dostoevsky, but sometimes, you’re just in the mood for straightforward if contradictory lines like, ‘Cool girls are above all, hot’.
The good news is if you still don’t want to read Gillian Flynn’s unputdownable thriller, Gone Girl releases in theaters on October 3.