Slate's article "Overrated" sent me back for what I think is the inspiration for many online articles: The Book of Lists, published in 1977 and edited by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, Amy Wallace ("and their dog Wally" according to the National Lampoon). It's just a book of lists, each well researched and with a light tone that's minus the superior attitude that infects much current writing. Online, the structure of the list has become ubiquitous to the point where it seems there's no other. There's little overall context and none of the protracted thought an essay requires, but they're easy to produce and read and that's what the Information Superhighway is about: Info and speed.
But in 1977 it was an innovative way to structure information. The Book Of Lists was so full of details and ideas that I even read, numerous times, about subjects I didn't care about (sports). It was also a great way to learn about sex.*
I remember as a kid seeing the below list and thinking "Ugh. I hope I never have to read one of those for school." Of course now there are several on the list I look forward to eventually tackling, boredom be damned.
The 15 Most Boring Classics
Based on a 1950 survey of readers taken by the Columbia University Press bulletin, The Pleasures of Publishing.
1. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
3. Paradise Lost by John Milton
4. Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer
5. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
6. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
7. Silas Mariner by George Eliot
8. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (sounds more like Dickens to me)**
9. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
10. Faust by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
11. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
12. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
13. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
14. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Some thoughts: a number of these books were mention at Slate, either in the main article or the reader comments. Given the fact that this survey was conducted 61 years ago, my thesis that contemporary readers want entertainment and equate books with television or the internet doesn't really hold water. Another theory: maybe these books are really boring, or rather frustrate reader expectations to the point of diminishing returns. You have to be really interested in 19th century whaling practices to finish Moby Dick, for example.
Four of the books are translated works, which makes me wonder if the fault is the translator's rather than the author's. It seems like the standard for translations in the first half of last century was to make the work "literary" which often meant wordy and obtuse. The works by Cervantes, Proust and Tolstoy have since been published in new, lauded editions. I wonder if they would still make the list. Possibly, as they are all very long works.
Does anyone still read Eliot, Richardson, Thackeray or Scott? Even in school or university? Those are novels that have fallen completely out of fashion, possibly because the conventional wisdom is that they are dreadfully boring. There's been too much of interest in literature in the last 60 years for people to still be slogging through Ivanhoe.
* Thank you David, Irving and Amy.
** You bastard!