When memes attack

18 July 2008

If you've seen a blog in the last week or so, you've probably noticed people going through a list of 100 books supposedly put together by the US National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read programme. I first came across it at the Diary of a Wordsmith, who has spotted two versions. One is the "US version" and one is the "UK version". But, there is no US version.

The blog meme has become the social networking equivalent of the chain letter and, often, contains about as much truth. The claim behind this top 100 list is that the NEA has put out this list to publicise a reading programme, claiming that the average American has read only six of the hundred titles the "NEA has printed".

I was about to comment at Diary of a Wordsmith about the strange collection of books the NEA has listed and, in full anorak mode, point out that it's odd that Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is on there and it's not really a book. OK, just about every English-language edition appears in a volume called Heart of Darkness, but the story itself is a novella. You also have the "Complete Works of Shakespeare" at number six accompanied by "Hamlet" at number 98.

There is also a little bit of weirdness in that number 51 is missing. I can tell you that the missing book is "Life of Pi" by Yann Martell. How do I know? Because the list is not at the NEA's Big Read site but taken from a March 2007 story from the Daily Telegraph. The list was the result of a poll taken for World Book Day intended to find a shortlist of ten.

What seems to have happened is that someone found the list and posted it at the DigitalSpy forum at the start of June, asking people to fill in what they had read. By 25 June, the list had wandered into LiveJournal, kicking off with a bunch of Doctor Who and Torchwood fans. I can't find a direct link but the large presence of Russell T Davies fans on DigitalSpy is probably a clue. By that time, the list was now linked to the ideas of the NEA Big Read and the six out of one hundred claim, which seems to have its roots in the UK's Six Book Challenge, although it's hard to be sure as so many different elements have been conflated.

In between June and now, the list crossed over into the world of blogs and number 51 mysteriously disappeared. I haven't worked out when but Google probably has an answer. I'm just trying to work out a search query that will find it quickly. And how the "UK version" of the list came about given that the original list originated from the same country. Yes, I am beginning to wonder whether I've taken this a bit far.

But, I'm fascinated by the ease with which these memes take over on the flakiest of facts. It says a lot about the web of trust that links people together. These factoids get passed on because people want to believe that people they know tell them the truth. And it leads to awful misconceptions.

Last year, I received a chain-letter email supposedly about those evil Iranians crippling a child criminal by driving a car over his arm. This one had gone right round the houses with, naturally, howls of outrage.

There was only one problem. The pictures were of a street magician and his son doing a trick that Penn and Teller do with a 18-wheeler. Basically, you bung a load of weights on one side of the vehicle so that most of the pressure is on only one set of wheels. You then drive over the 'victim' so that the wheels of the opposite, and much lighter side go over them.

In the case of the top-100 books meme, it's a case of no bones broken. If it makes people read more books, that's all to the good.

But the Internet now helps the crap travels so much faster that the truth doesn't get past wondering where it left its boots.

1 Comment

If I recall correctly, the list had its origin in a poll conducted by the Waterstones book shop chain. I do not know anything about the methodology, but I assume that "Waterstone's customers bothered enough to respond to a poll" would be the main contingent of respondees.

I may be wrong, but hope this helps continue this fascinating chase!