Friday, May 2, 2008

Meme Me

I can't actually recall the first time I heard the word "meme", but since I studied evolutionary biology in school it came up frequently. Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to serve as a term for the cultural equivalent of a gene, i.e. a unit that can get transmitted from person to person, such as a word, a song, a tradition, etc. Because it has worked its way into common parlance, "meme" itself is a meme. To be honest, I don't think anyone ever got into heated debates at lab meetings about meme transmission, mostly it just came up as something to talk about over a beer that was just mildly less dorky than trying to come up with the Latin names of all of the plants that had gone into the plate of nachos on the table. I did say mildly less dorky.

The Onion must have had a spy in our midst when they wrote this article

In common usage, memes are generally ideas that catch on and seem to take on a life of their own for no clear reason whatsoever, like reality TV or people suddenly deciding that wearing Crocs is a good idea. The internet, which has given us all sorts of new ways of spreading information around the world both rapidly and in bulk, is fertile ground for memes. Where was the word "blog" just 10 years ago? I, for one, would have been happier if "weblog" had caught on, but you can't control a meme. Mostly we have gotten totally useless (but amusing) memes out of the internet that will die off in a relatively short period of time, like CAPS LOCK FRIDAY, YouTube videos of kung-fu monkeys, and the inexplicable Lolcats.

Our friend Alice from An American In London passed on a fun e-meme to us with a specific task to be completed:
  1. Pick up the nearest book.
  2. Open to page 123
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. Post the next three sentences.
  5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
I had encountered a version of this meme on Yelp some time ago, and it is clearly still alive and well. As luck would have it, my aunt and uncle just sent me a box of books as a birthday present. They pulled together a collection of quirky British-themed books, my favorite of which is End of Chapter, a Nigel Strangeways Mystery by Nicholas Blake. It came complete with tape-reinforced spine and the aroma of an old lady's closet. I love the classy cover so much that it has been sitting on top of the stack next to my computer for the past week.

Just the type of high-brow fiction I enjoy

According to the Times Literary Supplement, this is an example of "Mr. Blake at the top of his form". Not knowing what the bottom of his form looks like, it is hard to say if this is a compliment. The first paragraph would be a a perfect candidate for a Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest entry, and it continues in a nearly incomprehensible hard-boiled style throughout. All of the chapters are named after writing terms like "Delete", "Lower Case", "Revise", and the mysterious "Wrong Font". Here now is the magic passage from page 123, sentences 6–8, from the chapter "Insert", which I boldly insert in the wrong font:

Nigel could hardly wait to get to Millicent Miles at nineteen, when—so she had told Basil Ryle—she was seduced and gave birth to a stillborn baby. With what convulsions of euphemism would she handle that passage of her life? Or, more likely, it had been another outrageous fiction invented to enlist the sympathies of poor Ryle.

Wow. If that doesn't make you want to read End of Chapter, then nothing will. "Convulsions of euphemism" is pure poetry. I can't wait to see what gems page 124 holds.


cab said...

I thought you had to visit the sex shoppe to get convulsions of euphemism.

American in London said...

Your book excerpt is fantastic - I didn't realize so much plot could fit into just three sentences! The book cover isn't too shabby, either.

Jordan said...

that onion thing almost killed me. that will be shared at a few lab meetings this week, i'm guessing. also, lolcats iz awesome. the saga of the lolrus is on a par with the iliad.

Doug said...

My personal favorite internet meme is 'Rick Rolling' people. Rick Rolling is the art of tricking unsuspecting people into watching the Rick Astley - Never Gonna Give You Up music video. I couldn't tell you how many times my friends have Rick Rolled me, its happened so many times i now love the song. The only punishment for being Rick Rolled is that you have to sit through the entire video, no closing the window early. It turned up on quite a few web sites this past April Fools Day and there is an extensive wiki article on it describing best practices: