My town’s transfer station (a.k.a. “dump”) has a wooden shack that sort of resembles an outhouse. Only it’s for a whole different kind of refuse: it’s where residents bid farewell to their no-longer-wanted books.
Now, I’m assuming these books get recycled, so I guess they don’t technically “die”; they’re re-incarnated, re-born in another form. And some of these books actually get saved; over the years, I myself may have plucked out a few gems from this garbage-heap. (Hey, one man’s trash, right?)
In fact, a few Saturday mornings ago, I was on one of these shopping sprees, and while perusing through the shack’s cramped shelves, I started doing a mental inventory of the discarded books. I saw (among many others) Jerry Seinfeld’s SeinLanguage; Dr. Barry Sears’s diet book Enter the Zone; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm; four Tom Clancy books (The Sum of All Fears, The Hunt for Red October, and two copies of Red Storm Rising); and two copies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Ever the English teacher, I started doing an analysis—not of the content of the books, but of the kinds of books that people were throwing out. And it occurred to me: they’re all fads. Those books I listed above are ones that caught fire with the public at a certain point in time and then… just died out. For some of these, the fire may have lasted a long time (Tom Clancy had a good run there), but it died out nonetheless. (I’d call these books the literary equivalent of Furbies, but Furbies are apparently trying to make a comeback. Godspeed, Furbies…)
This isn’t to say these books didn’t enjoy some incredible popularity. Let’s take Da Vinci Code, for example: as of 2009, it sold 80 million copies; it stirred up a lot of controversy (which may have contributed to the aforementioned 80 million copies); it spawned two movies; and it transformed nerdy symbologists from Harvard into sex symbols. (Well, that last one may be a stretch, especially given the sorry state of Tom Hanks’s hair in the film version.)
Moreover, this one novel ignited a slew of literary sub-genres—including the “Unlocking The Da Vinci Code” books, the “Debunking The Da Vinci Code” books, and the “Debunking the Debunking The Da Vinci Code” books.
I definitely got caught up in the Dan Brown fervor myself a few years ago. I dutifully read Da Vinci Code (as well as its prequel/ pseudo-sequel, Angels and Demons), mostly because everyone else was, but I remember liking it. And yes, I also remember agreeing with the critics who called characters two-dimensional and the prose less-than-Faulknerian (according to Wikipedia, a writer from the New York Times once called the book a “best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence”), but I remember finding the novel entertaining regardless.
But I don’t really remember a lot of specifics about the book. I remember a few things: that the plot hinged on the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married (ooops… spoiler alert); that there was a creepy albino named Silas; and that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting has some weird and wacky things going on. But that’s about it. The novel didn’t really stay with me.
The Da Vinci Code had its day, but it was definitely a fad. And seeing those two Da Vinci Codes in that outhouse-sized book shack that Saturday morning started me thinking about the whole “fad books” phenomenon. Why do some books strike the mainstream’s fancy? And then why does that same mainstream discard them and move on to something else?
Then I realized: the truly amazing thing is not that some books fade from our consciousness but that many actually stay there. Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. Why are we still teaching it to our high schoolers today? Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1884, Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales around 1400, and Sophocles wrote Oedipus The King four hundred before the birth of Christ. What does it say about these texts, these ideas, these characters, that they didn’t fade away?
Who knows which of today’s best-sellers will end up in tomorrow’s outhouse? More importantly, which ones won’t? Which current beloved book will withstand the sands of time? (No one can predict this, of course, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I suspect that the words “Grey” and the number fifty will NOT be in the title.)
And now, as always… your turn, it is: which titles do you think are quintessential “fad”-books? And which books do you foresee becoming “fad”-books in the future?