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?”