Oh society, what are you reading?

By Sonja Nikcevic

“The masses are stupid.” Unfortunately, this is a sentence I have heard too many times in the world of media and news production. I have even been guilty of thinking it myself, when I moderated comments or published photos of footballers’ naked girlfriends instead of stories about how said footballer played the previous weekend. I grumbled and cursed the masses, but conceded that clicks make money and money makes the world go round. I never really believed in it though. It’s just something you say at work; the whole of humanity can’t REALLY be stupid, can it? Or at least that’s what I liked to believe.

Then, a couple of days ago, I came across a truly tragic infographic, about a slightly different type of written word. You can see it below, possibly the saddest Top 10 ever – the top 10 most read books in the world in the past 50 years. And so I redirect you, and myself, back to the opening sentence – there is obviously something innately and frighteningly wrong with a species that has Shakespeare, the great Russian authors, and libraries full of literary genius, but that picks up Twilight instead.

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Now, let’s take a slightly deeper look into these ten bestsellers of humanity. The first thing that we see is in strikingly high disproportion between The Holy Bible and everything else. The Bible is read (or rather printed and sold) eight to sixteen times more than its closest followers, and this makes complete sense. While the whole of humanity is obviously not all Christian, or religious for that matter, a large percentage is. And the majority within this percentage has a Bible in their home. What’s important to remember here is that the graph tells us how many copies of these books were sold, not actually read.  The Bible is seen as a source of faith, inspiration and amulet of sorts; the security it brings comes from knowing that it’s there, not from having read the whole thing. It is not light reading or the book you brag about at dinner parties, it’s also the one book that many hotel rooms provide, along with the room service menu. It’s religion, and it’s why I believe it deserves its own infographic, where it can’t overshadow the rest of literature.

The runner up could easily fall into this category as well. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung is a book of selected statements from speeches and writings by the former leader of Chinese Communist Party and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China.  As a dear Chinese friend told me not long ago – the only religion in China is communism. The book – conveniently printed in a pocket sized version and colored bright red – was largely distributed during China’s Cultural Revolution, to the point where it became an offence not to own one. This combined with the numbers of Chinese population, tells us all we need to know about the graph. It should be in its own league with the Bible.

And book #3 brings us to a personal childhood (and adolescence) favorite, Harry Potter, and also handily points to the root of all evil: marketing. There is no doubt about it – the seven books in the Harry Potter series are masterfully written. I still remember the day I read my first Harry Potter book and got sucked into the world of the misery of a little boy, and the magic that changed it all. I remember mentally hurrying J.K. along to write the next book so that I could see what happened to Harry. I also divide all my friends into those that know what Platform 9 ¾ means, and those that just don’t know what they’re missing. This however, does not change the fact that the Harry Potter books can’t and should not be the third most sold books in the world. They started a revolution that blurred the lines between “grown up” and children’s literature, fed off of our need to witness good battle evil and sparked a fantasy trend that is still up and running. It needs to be in the top ten, but as a solid eight or nine. Because what brought it to #3, were not just the genius words of J.K. Rowling, but the genius acts of those pulling the PR strings. HP merchandise spread like wildfire, whispers of movies and sequels started much before J.K. got her paycheck, and the hysteria began. A marketing somebody had the foresight to see HP for the money cow that it was, and milk it for all its worth.  This is what turned it into a classic and this is what is the real mirror into the last 50 years of society and sadly, literature.

The Da Vinci Code and Twilight fall under this same merchandising concept. Both had something new (but not as well written!), and what followed was a boom, a craze, a sequel and a movie. Neither should it be something that humanity reads above else. Especially not Twilight.

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What we can be happy about is that Fifty Shades of Grey did not make the list (yet). But we can be sure that it will, because what it is, is the grown up Twilight on steroids. The vampires, teens and love triangles have just been replaced with sex and s&m. What “the masses” seem to mistake it for is a sexual revolution for women. What it really is, is fan fiction, and badly written at that.

As it is time to end this self-important literary rant of mine, I’ll end it on some positive notes. Two, possibly three books, stand out and give quality and insight. The J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne Frank (with Gone With the Wind not too far behind) give us something to hope for in the name of literacy and education. It’s what you should read to your kids and teach in your classroom, after you’ve already introduced them to Harry Potter of course. And on that final positive note, look back at the graph, and what you’ll notice is that, disproportion or not, faith is still above all else. Above marketing, cheesy word-spinning (looking at you, Coelho) and the self-help revolution.

Oh, and humanity? If you want to read a good book, try To Kill a Mockingbird or 1984, because Big Brother and racism are everywhere.


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2 thoughts on “Oh society, what are you reading?

  1. Pingback: Aaaaaand… this was 2013! | We should name this soon

  2. Pingback: Word of the year 2013: a reflection of the “me-me-me” generation | We should name this soon

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