The meming of things

“Your face when…” (image: writerspace.com)

If you read my posts on a regular basis you will know this face applies to me. It’s fairly likely it applies to you too. The possibility that anybody who is a bibliophile — a bibliomane, even — recognises this reaction is high. That’s the power of the meme.

Memes might seem a new thing but they’ve been around a long time, certainly long before Richard Dawkins defined them in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a unit of cultural information, one spread by imitation and, like genes, subject to evolution and mutation.

So when I recently had a till receipt from a Waterstone’s bookshop I was quite taken by the meme included on the print out.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but I have a receipt from the bookstore telling a whole different story.

As with many memes, the ultimate genesis of which it’s almost impossible to identify, I wasn’t able to find a quoted source, but from the use of the term ‘bookstore’ I’m assuming it’ll be North American. But I liked its quiet wit: not only can buying books be a fountainhead of pleasure, but the notion that even a bookshop receipt is able to tell a story gave rise to a small smile.

(There is an alternative version of this meme doing the rounds: “They say money can’t buy happiness, but I have a receipt from the liquor store telling a whole different story.” Which one came first I don’t know but this one loses a little of the impact of the other — where’s the story, exactly?)

Let’s discuss the ‘purchase’ of happiness for a moment.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau back in 1750 wrote (in A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, The Second Part) that “Money buys everything, except morality and citizens.” Supposedly this statement is the ultimate source of the first part of our bookish aperçu, “Money can’t buy you happiness”. At least, this is what an online search suggests.

Though I’m not sure I believe that citizens are totally exempt from bribery and sweeteners — wannabe politicians regularly promise unicorns if elected, don’t they — Rousseau continues: “The politicians of the ancient world were always talking of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money,” he wrote. However, predicting that “A taste for ostentation never prevails in the same minds as a taste for honesty,” he showed a touching faith in human nature and its capacity to not be lured by filthy lucre.

(Let’s for a moment pretend that Rousseau himself came up our bookstore meme, hidden away somewhere in his Discourse. Of course he would have written in French, and this rendition sounds to me quite classy:

‘Ils disent que l’argent n’achète pas le bonheur, mais j’ai un reçu de la librairie qui me raconte une toute autre histoire.”

La librairie is of course not French for library but a place where you buy books; la bibliothèque is the place to borrow them.)

Where did Rousseau get the notion that money couldn’t buy morals, virtue, honesty? No doubt from the famous passage in St Paul’s letter to Timothy:

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

Not only does the love of money mean you stray off the straight and narrow, Paul declares, but you subject yourself to unhappiness. In other words — and here is the wellspring of part of our meme — money really can’t buy you happiness, if greed is your motivating factor.

A big personal problem with greed (I’m ignoring its social cost for now) is that you are never really satisfied — at the back of your mind there is nearly always an anxiety that you’ll never have enough. (We know of quite a few filthy-rich individuals like this who desperately want to part you from your money, don’t we … )

And that’s also the problem with tsundoku, defined as the “acquisition of reading materials while letting them pile up at home without reading them.” Guilty as charged, m’lud: I see a book I like, I’m worried it won’t be there when I come back later, so I acquire it — to join the other books acquired in the same way.

But that pictured receipt from the bookshop really does tell a whole different story: of the two books I bought one — Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, about the joys of childhood reading — is currently being perused, and the other — Madeline Miller’s Circe, recommended to me a few times — is pencilled in for May’s Wyrd & Wonder fantasy reading event. Happiness has definitely been bought.

Unlike the notorious ‘trickle-down effect’ of accumulated wealth (when in fact the said accumulation stays in the hands of those who promote this discredited theory) the opposite is the case with the books, when I finally get round to reading them. I read, I digest, I share the fruits of my reading, in the hopes that you may be enriched or even enlightened by such ruminations. That’s proper trickle-down.

So let me propose a new meme, my hastily concocted unit of cultural information:

The love of reading is the root of much happiness: and those that share that love share happiness.


There is of course a bigger picture here, one I’ve visited before and will be returning to again, and questions to be answered include “Am I being a dog in the manger?” and “Do these books spark joy?” and “What will eventually happen to all these books?”

Tom Gauld: “Your house is overloaded…” https://twitter.com/tomgauld/status/1086927341874491393?s=19

16 thoughts on “The meming of things

  1. I agree-though sometimes, I do tend to think I am being greedy buying books when I know I have no chance of getting to them for a long long time. But eventually when you do, there is the happiness of reading, and as you say of sharing your thoughts, and talking about them with others.

    In a way, ‘money can’t buy love’ too can be seen the same way, my first pet was ‘bought’ and that’s some of the best kind of love I got!

    1. They say that some books can be like friends, ones that you wouldn’t discard after a brief acquaintance. At least, that’s my excuse for hanging onto books that I’ve only dipped into briefly at the start but hope to return to, like people whose contact details you hang on to… 😁

      I’m really enjoying Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm — highly recommended, by the way, if one doesn’t mind its very British middle-class-ness — as it conveys the joy of childish bookishness combined with the joy of sharing, along with the sense of experiencing the wider world vicariously, both unconsciously during childhood and retrospectly as an adult.

      And I can appreciate that pets can also surmount the paradox that is the Can’t Buy Me Love meme, though I don’t think I ever experienced that unconditional love from childhood pets (can a stick insect provide that?). 🙂

      1. Glad you’re enjoying Mangan. I read via NetGalley last year–added a lot more to my shopping list after it. Though I wasn’t too thrilled with her views on Blyton. I continue to enjoy her books even now.

        Mine was a dog, so I guess that made all the difference 🙂

        1. She does have strong views, doesn’t she! But books are personal, so I forgive her her slighting of The Cat in the Hat — haven’t yet got to Blyton…

          I have a memory that you might have reviewed the Mangan, so I’ll toddle off and refresh my memory now! 🙂

  2. piotrek

    Oh, a new Tom Gauld strip, and a very deep one at that 🙂

    I remember a song by a Polish comedian that roughly translates to:

    “Money can’t buy happiness… when you don’t have any
    You know your true friends when in distress… they come to borrow some” 😉

    As to the memes – they are a refreshed, by certainly not new phenomenon. For most of the history pictures had wider audience than texts, I remember reading Iconology by Cesare Ripa – there was an entire system of, well, memes, that people of the past instantly recognized. We can count ourselves lucky the memes of our times have at least some text attached to them 😉

    I might be a grumpy old man at heart, but I believe in the written word and I’m afraid we might be heading into a post-textual reality that will be, frankly, dumber and superficial. In several political campaigns around the world we’ve seen proofs that meme-based politics is not an improvement… but I still love it when partisans of my cases ridicule our opponents 😉

    I hope for a synthesis that would keep the good stuff from the past, but I’m not sure we can count on it.

    1. Oh, that quote from the song is deep, Piotrek, and has a sense of rightness even though I can’t quite fathom it! And I always turn to Tom Gauld’s usually excellent strip in every Saturday’s Guardian Review (this last which I religiously pore over, sometimes weeks or months after the rest of the paper is discarded).

      Yes, I didn’t quite mean to suggest that memes were only born shortly before Dawkins defined them. There’s a good exploration of memes and memeplexes in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (which I really ought to revisit and review some time).

      There’s always been an anti-intellectual element in society but I fear that technology has given it a presence and power that threatens stability and justice in the world, aided and abetted by shadowy and not so shadowy individuals and entities. Of course meme-based politics is no different from advertising slogans, and those of course merely elevated selling opportunities to the status of proverb-based folk wisdom. (See, you’re not the only one who can do Grumpy Old Man!)

  3. I do love this! Now, if only more people would subscribe to the idea and keep bookstores thriving instead of being an endangered species as at present here . . .

    1. Yes, I remember a recent post or two of yours bemoaning the closing of bookstores, sad for readers as well as authors such as you. Still, there has been a quiet renaissance in physical bookshops (especially independents) in the UK and elsewhere which, while not yet fully-fledged, promises well for the future and maybe, just maybe, that’ll be the case in RSA in due course.

  4. “I see a book I like, I’m worried it won’t be there when I come back later, so I acquire it” – I know that feeling all too well! I love your new improved version of the meme. I must be the last person in the world not to have yet read the Lucy Mangan – but I bought a copy months ago, just in case it sold out 😀

    1. Heehee, perfect!

      The new improved meme: I should find a suitable picture to go with it and put it out on social media, but feel free to beat me to it. 😄

  5. I’ve cut back drastically on book purchases, especially from the big A. But when I go into a bookstore and see a book that tempts me, I take a picture on my phone — not to buy it later at a lower price (an abhorrent practice), but to see if my library has it.

    And yet — I recently left a bookstore w/ 3 graphic novels (including a bio of Hannah Arendt) — blowing through this year’s book budget in one day.

    1. I’ve tried doing something similar, Lizzie, noting title and author on a phone app, and have even managed to find one of the authors in the local library. But, as with you, it’s hard not to succumb to temptation when it’s there, just in front of me…

      I tend not to get things on Amazon too, preferring to get things online only if they’re hard to obtain or out of print; I’m a firm believer in supporting bookshops, local indie first then a national chain like Waterstone’s or Foyle’s second.

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.