Enraged by memes

On the meme front, there is a long-lived trope where you are asked to pick up a book randomly from your shelves or desk and go to a selected page and give the sentence. For example, I liked the “Give the last sentence of your dissertation (or thesis)” meme. However, a current version of this meme is garnering rage for me:

Pick up the nearest book to you, turn to page 45. The first sentence explains your love life.

The comma splice in the quoted text is as written, and perhaps gave me a preview for the thoughtlessness in which the meme was constructed. I tried this meme anyway, knowing it would go very, very badly.  Here is the comment I did not post on the Facebook thread started by one of the nicest people on Facebook:  “The nearest book for me is the APA Publication Manual at my elbow, and it only partly defines my life. This meme assumes books equal literature, correct?” Yes, I don’t think that an analytic geometry text or my APA manual would work for this. What is called for here is fiction, not even poetry since it is measured in lines, not sentences. The secret meme that U.S. society has about literacy grows stronger each year. Despite the huge amounts of text people process daily, a total that is growing even for teens and young adults according to the Pew American Life and Internet statistics, the perception is that people are less literate, even by the very people who are more literate than ever before. This perception is fueled by the unspoken assumption that only reading means literacy, and within that small definition that  conveniently forgets writing or any other literacy, only reading books, print books, counts. Taken one more step, within that set of reading-only and only print books, the only real books are fiction. Even worse, the proportion of fiction to poetry in general survey courses is lopsided, and more and more, statements made about “Literature” really only mean fiction.

This narrow view does not inspire an avowed love of reading; instead, it reinforces an inaccurate and elitist view of what literacy is. When I first gave a literacy narrative assignment to my first-year composition students years ago, one of my questions was, “What was the last book you read for fun?” and the most frequent responses were a children’s books series, the Berenstain Bears, or Goodnight Moon. After that, I extended the heuristic given them and significantly bumped up in-class discussion on what counts as literacy (writing counts too is a start for that). They really weren’t as closed off from their own culture as they self-reported. When screen reading and yes, movies/TV are included, and when writing is also considered literacy as well, their self-assessments became more accurate. An aside: those wishing to debate about including movies/TV can take it up with the media scholars. They would have plenty to say. Pop Culture is a great scholarship area too.

But…does any of this speak to the meme, does any of it speak to the reading that you do because it fulfills your soul? See what I did there? I even  included a comma spice just to get into the spirit of the thing. That is the connection, I think, that the meme tries to build between the “nearest book” and “love life.” Fiction can unlock our view of our souls. The problem is, however, our souls aren’t so small that  fiction is the only genre with that ability.

So, I am at my desk that is literally surrounded by bookshelves. I am a working writer for both scholarship and poetry. That means research reading as well as pleasure reading. The stack at my elbow is halfway shifted between projects. The APA Manual is going back to the shelves and MLA will come out. There was only one print book for the last article, but there was still a significant References page full of journal articles accessed as PDF, web journal articles (webtexts), and websites. I have a book stack that is moving over to the desk for the next revision I’m doing, and it is full of steampunk novels, but  N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman and two critical essay collections by Samuel R. Delany will be in there too. The meme assumption about reading and the narrowing of perceived literacy it reflects discounts 80 to 85% of what I read.

One more thing. I read fiction and poetry every day. The poetry is in books or on screen (web, not Kindle) because of the line breaks. The fiction I read for fun though, I read on the KIndle. Page 45? Please. Try locators instead.

Posted by

Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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