Saturday, January 26, 2008

Books That Make You Dumb

It's Saturday, Rhian's at work, and I will take the horrible step of making the day's post not only a link, but a link I stole from Cory Doctorow. It's about an amusing new project by "disruptive technologist" Virgil Griffith, in which he has made a large chart identifying correlations between various books and the SAT scores of their readers.

"Yes," Griffith writes, "I'm aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are awesome regardless of direction of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks." Nonscience notwithstanding, we are amused to see how low the Bible, The Color Purple, and Fight Club are skewing. Meanwhile, Nabokov and Garcia Marquez are tops among high scorers.

Always nice to have another excuse to be an insufferable snob, however unnecessary such a thing might be.


rmellis said...

Some perfectly good books here chart as dumb simply because they're taught in high schools, and some dumb kids have read *nothing* except what they were forced to in school.

But don't get me going on SAT scores...

max said...

Many MFA grads are, I think, poorly read. They read what their high school and college instructors assign them; they read what is suggested by friends/mentors or what is highly praised. As writers, they read the work of fellow writers.
It's reading by rote.
Where is the sense of exploration -- which is the essence of the true reader: the desire to discover the unknown.
Discover The Tenants of Moonbloom, Wisteria Cottage, The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, The Gate -- and a hundred others few have ever heard about, but which are wonderful.
To find them you have to move off the beaten path.

Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily agree that these paths to reading are "reading by rote". Presumably the books are generally suggested because they are good - Whether that's because they are part of some canon or were personally moving to the reader or whatever.

I'm a bit nervous about what could be viewed as book snobbery by some. Okay, maybe The Color Purple is a bit of a cliche on reading lists, but that doesn't make it redundant as a text. Similarly obscurity doesn't have to be a
marker of a reader's superior book choice. There is such a thing as reading for pleasure. Making people feel dumb for their choices is a sure way to stop some potential readers from reading.

That said, of course there are many little recognised and non publicised books that deserve attention. I, personally, love telling someone about a great book they've never heard of, but does that make me better read or just lucky that I came across it in the first place?

Why the reference to MFA grads?

Anonymous said...

How does a blog that so avidly supports the pulp, and the genre, suddenly seem so aligned also with Literary Elitism 101?

Whether or not you buy that stupid-ass NEA statistic about reading, this much is true: people read less, and less, and less every year. Why would I POSSIBLY want to waste a moment of my time criticizing an active reader for liking, say, Fight Club (not my taste, but still) when they are still holding a book, enjoying a book, and caring (often deeply) about a book?

This one post seems weirdly out of character.

rmellis said...

I won't speak for John, but I think there's a certain amount of grain-of-salt or ironic distance there.

He lives with a woman who couldn't resist the latest Enquirer because of the Britney stuff.

Anonymous said...

Just a little light comic relief, that's all. No need to be alarmed.

AC said...

I notice that there are very few books on the chart at the higher end of the SAT scores. I hope that means there were a greater variety of books listed with less commonality, not that people who get high SAT scores don't read literature. I've got nothing against computer geeks per se, but sometimes I do feel like they've taken over the world.

If I remember correctly, my SAT scores were something close to 1300 (this chart is using the old scoring system that went up to 1600, right?) I have only read a couple of the books on the chart for my "category" and I wouldn't have listed Crime and Punishment or 100 Years of Solitude on any favorites list.

I am not surprised at all to see the Bible, The Color Purple, or Fight Club correlating with such low scores. Those are all what I would think of as political choices, books that are beloved by some readers because they speak to a cause or way of looking at the world that is dear to the reader's heart and forms a part of their identity. You don't necessarily have to be a clever student to feel strongly about a book in this way.

I am also not surprised to see that The Holy Bible skews "dumber" than The Bible. I worked through high school and part of college in a Christian bookstore, a veritable Bible emporium. Do you know who calls it "The Holy Bible"? Poor, urban black people and poor, rural white people. Those are the people who typically came in looking for "The Authorized 1611 King James Version of the Holy Bible" (as it says on the title page). Some of the more old-fashioned churches still insist on the old KJV and distrust any "modern" translation. I'd be willing to bet that poor students don't do as well on the SATs as wealthier ones, if only because they can't afford the extra preparation classes to boost their score.

That said, it still gives me great pleasure to see The Color Purple way over on the "dumb" end. Take that, radical feminist mother in law!

TIV: the individual voice said...

Remember these are just based on the 100 most popular books on Facebook. How many serious college students even use Facebook? My impression is that it's more of a high school teen phenomenon, not so much people in their twenties. Facebook is for a subpopulation concerned more with socializing and popularity than reading and geekdom.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I didn't mean to spark discussion...the "study" is entirely silly! In all honesty, I think Rhian's right about this--the low-score books are books kids read in high school, and if they're not big readers afterward, that's all they remember.

rmellis said...

Hey, my friends from work got me to join Facebook just this last week. I'm so popular, I think I have three friends now!

zoe said...

I use facebook. I'm quite serious. Mostly. Hey Rhian, will you be my friend?

rmellis said...

Of course I'll be your friend. I can't find anyone in my regular circles of friends, aside from work, who's actually on there. Not even JRL! Guess I'm too old by a decade or two.

max said...

To the anonymous that responded to my post and asked the question: "Why the reference to MFA grads?"
Literary fiction is dominated by MFAers; they publish, they teach creative writing. If they read the same type of thing, and have no desire to go beyond that, they aren't good readers. And if you aren't a good reader, you're missing a major qualification for writing and teaching. At least that's my opinion.
Mary Robison's "Why Did I Ever?" barely qualifies, in length or content, as a novel. It's about a disfunctional, anger-filled woman. Yet there's sonmething smug about her, as if she’s secretly pleased with her angst, her aimless driving about through the night, etc. The character is all quips; if she faced the fact that she is partly responsible for her children's messed-up state, we might be getting somewhere. To the truth, maybe.
Mary Robison has an MFA and teaches creative writing (she's a member of the club). What does she have to write about but herself? Problem is, she does it evasively.

rmellis said...

Poor Max: You can't even enjoy Mary Robison!

Do you think I don't *really* like her work, that I just feel a kind of warm toasty MFA-glow, because she's a member of my special club?

Let me tell you why I like her: her endless inventiveness with language, her humor, and her moments of insight, which make me feel as if I understand the human condition a little better than I did before.

Do I think everyone has to love and respect her? Of course not! She's definitely not everyone's thing.

But you can't say with a straight face that she's just a derivative "MFA-writer." She's doing something real that moves people.

rmellis said...

Thanks for the rec's, by the way, Max. I just ordered them from abebooks.

One of the main reasons we've kept this blog going is because of all the good books its readers and linkers have lead us to.

I know I tend to read either stuff written relatively recently or classics, which leaves out a whole pile of stuff written between say 1940 and 1979, just because it has largely disappeared into the backs of people's garages.

max said...

Don't cry for me, Argentina.
I love so many books! The pleasure I've gotten from books!
I liked Mary Robison's "Oh!" and her story "Coach." They work. "Why Did I Ever?" is filler. But I do believe you sincerely like it.
My point about the novel is that it pretends to tell something real about the human condition, when it's actually composed of evasive mannerisms.
How about divine intervention to settle this? Who's right, God: Rhian or Max?
So glad you've ordered the books I recommended. Don't forget the Barbara Pym novel I mentioned earlier -- "Quartet in Autumn." And "The Gate" is by Soseki Natsume ("Mon" in Japanese.)

rmellis said...

See, I don't think it's evasive -- I think *people* are evasive. I find that pretty heartbreaking.

And God knows it's not a matter of being right. It's a matter of how many people you can get to join your team.