‘The reason the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world is that something had to be the most famous painting in the world and it might as well be the Mona Lisa.’
– Seth Godin, Unleashing The Super Ideavirus
That quote about the Mona Lisa applies to books too. Something has to be the most famous, the most popular, the best selling, the most widely read. And once it is, it’s easy to buy into the hype around it, one way or another.
On the one hand, we’ve probably all trudged through a book we found tedious just because we knew it was renowned as powerful and insightful, and we thought we should enjoy it. That’s the power of the literary cannon, whether mainstream or within a genre, the moment when something becomes so famous that you think it must deserve that fame.
But the thing is, something had to accumulate that hype, and whether it’s worth it is still very subjective. Just because it’s famous doesn’t mean it’s more deserving than anything else, just that of all the deserving books it’s the one that got lucky. And once that happens prestige tends to accumulate, adding to the legend. I like the Mona Lisa, but is it the best thing in the Louvre? I don’t think so, but I know that’s what I’m expected to think. I also know that Joyce’s Ulysses is meant to be a work of staggering genius, but I gave up on that meandering doorstopper and I don’t regret it for a moment.
This is also a reason not to get too cynical about the world of books that we read and write within. Sure, Dan Brown might not be to my tastes, but his success doesn’t mean the world has been turned on its head or that some great injustice is being perpetrated. Someone was going to wind up being that famous and it was never going to be someone we all agreed on. The system isn’t built on corruption or poor judgement, it’s just a bit fumbling and accidental.
I’ve got no conclusion to all this. I just found Godin’s comment thought-provoking, and spewing half-completed thoughts onto the internet is part of my mental process these days. Is it the best process? Maybe not, but something had to be my process.
Picture by Lindy Drew Photography via Flickr creative commons