As is a pretty common happening on the internet now, there’s a new BuzzFeed article going around. The headline is a random and arbitrary number followed by some nouns, and the article itself is a numbered list of pictures, animated GIFs, and perhaps as many as 100 words or so.
This week’s entry: Joseph Bernstein’s July 9 screed, 28 ‘Favorite’ Books That Are Huge Red Flags.
It begins with the ominous intonation, “These books are harmless. Until a friend or loved one tells you that one of them is their favorite.” It then presents a list of books that, in Bernstein’s words, “have significant merits” but “are also indicative of deep and abiding potential character flaws in you and your loved ones.”
Here’s what’s wrong with it.
Literally the entire article is made up of shameless stereotyping based on the assumption that there’s only one reading of any book. There is, in fact, no capital-R Reading of a book that says, “This is what this book means and this is why,” no matter how much Bernstein takes for granted that there is. I like Harry Potter now for very different reasons than BuzzFeed’s “5-year-old” reader who doesn’t “know where Afghanistan is” does. I just read Perks of Being a Wallflower a month ago, and I liked it for very different reasons than BuzzFeed’s “sensitive teenager” does. I disliked The Catcher in the Rye, but I can appreciate The Catcher in the Rye, all for very different reasons than BuzzFeed’s “no one understands” reader does.
The piece amounts, in the end, to little more than a long list of potshots at people who like popular books. Because these are all popular books. And as any hipster will tell you, it’s easy to hate things that are popular. More specifically, it’s easy to judge someone you perceive to like something “too much.”
Let’s take the Beatles song “Hey Jude” as an example. It’s an undeniably great song. It’s also a very popular song. Let’s say that you meet someone who just loves this song. Someone who just goes bananas over “Hey Jude” and is the only person screaming “naaa naaa naaa nanananaaaa” when it comes on in the bar. It’s easy to think, “Whoa … you might like ‘Hey Jude’ a little too much.” But that alone isn’t actually indicative of the quality of the work or the person.
And frankly, the list is wrong even when it’s right. I dislike Fight Club for the same reasons BuzzFeed does — that it carries for so many the message that “it’s so haaaaard to be a white-collar man.” But once again, this is not a problem with the book itself. What BuzzFeed is really taking issue with is people who respond in specific ways to these books, the “nananana”-style superfans who so annoy those who feel that despite (or perhaps with the help of) their enthusiasm, they’re misreading the book. Bernstein is turning those bad feelings on the book itself, even though what rankles is a wrongheaded reading of the book. It’s the formalist argument that the meaning of the text is in the text, except it’s BuzzFeed and it’s easy to make numbered lists of tired jokes. Bernstein chides “grown-ups” for liking The Giver on the basis that facial hair means you’re a grown-up, but I can say The Giver was a good book whether or not I have facial hair. Facial hair will come and go as people read The Giver, independently of The Giver.
Interestingly, BuzzFeed recently ran a similarly titled graph of the 27 Broiest Books That Bros Like To Read, which also gets the entirety of its humor from stereotypes. The important difference between these two pieces, though, is that the “bro” list distinguished between making jokes about books and making jokes about segments of a book’s audience, pointing out, “Many of these are great books worth enjoying 100%, despite their sometimes pedantic audience.” It’s a small point, but a critical one that the “red flag” piece misses entirely. It’s not enough to say the books “all have significant merits.” The point is that there’s nothing wrong with loving these books at all unless you love them in the bro-y way the list is trying to address.
There’s no one way to read a book, so there’s no one way to know whether your friend’s “favorite book” is a red flag without knowing why. Perhaps the real red flag is judging the reader, and not the book, by its cover.