The article popped up in my newsfeed, clickbait headline blaring: the 65 books you need to read in your twenties. Being a person of self-restraint and sober judgement, I clicked on the link, naturally. It was, as the attentive reader might have guessed, a Listicle.
The listicle seems to be becoming the dominant article form of our time. I see more of this once shy creature in my facebook feed than almost any other kind of article these days- and I have friends who love the long form article.
Like most listicles, this one had a series of numbered pictures with a paragraph standing by like some awkward parent. Book covers were displayed, shining, next to a digit somewhere between 1 and 39, with the paragraph allowed to sing its praises, as long as it did it quickly and then shut up.
I had only read one of the books on the list.
Cue the shiver of book-induced FOMO. I felt out of touch, wondering why I’ve not dived into the pool of things-you-must-read-in-your-20’s. I only have three years left! I wasn’t alone. The comments on the post both stated their inadequacy as measured by the list. We all felt like we should have done better. We were all voracious readers, after all.
The unexamined life is not worth living. So, striving to at least fake an existence with a reason for continuing, I stopped and took a step back. Who was the person writing this? Some random person I don’t know from a bar of soap, who had the time and inclination to scratch out an example of one of the most effortless articles in existence. And I was giving her any kind of say in my life?
It works like this. Take 65 books you really loved, google their covers and say why you liked them. Now add a title that makes it sound authoritative. Profit.
I could do it too, but unlike this person, my list would be full of mind-bending Science Fiction instead of books written by or about rock stars. I would have a few (very few) books on philosophy instead of feminist manifestos by popular celebrities. Instead of something by Chuck Palahniuk, I’d offer up books like Shantaram and The Book Thief.
This does not mean that my list would be better. For instance, I’ve been meaning to read Chuck Palahniuk for quite some time. There were many incredible books (I hear) in that listicle, but that does not make it authoritative. A title claiming that you MUST read them does not make it authoritative. As hard as it is to believe, not even numbering the posts makes it authoritative.
A better title would probably have been: Books I really liked reading in my 20’s. And that’s the problem with so many of these cookie-cutter articles: they are merely someone’s opinion disguised as a definitive take on the world.
We are taken in by the form, by the way it is dished up, made to believe that we must conform to the reality it tries to sketch. Truly, the medium is the message.
What do you do with a problem like the listicle? Maybe their worth lies in the possibility of encountering something new. If it’s all just opinions disguised as something more, we can stand back and decide whether we would like to explore the world that is offered up to us. If we don’t, that’s great too, but too often we are pulled into the clutches of inadequacy by a form that is barely worth the angst.
But don’t give it power, don’t let it depress you. The listicle thrives on people missing out, or feeling like they do. It is unfortunately a fact of life that if you do one thing, you miss out on another. Never allow a number and a picture to make the things you’re doing right now feel less worthy of your time.
Unless they are. Then you should run.