When Language Has No Value

We forget what books are for, apparently. And we all become sarcastic, irony-spouting hipsters.

Buzzfeed released a list from the Buzzfeed Community of 51 Books That Prove Reading Can Change Your Life.

Now, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration for me to say that I’ve read more books than the average person my age. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s changed my life. I have several favorite books: The Bell JarAs I Lay Dying, The Yellow Wallpaper (although I suppose that’s a novella), Song of the LarkThe World According to Garp, and there are others that I can’t recall right now, but I’m sure later someone will ask me, ‘What about this book?’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! That book! I forgot!’ But I don’t necessarily consider any of those life-changing.

For a book to be truly life-changing, it means you read a book and it convinced you to quit your job, or leave your husband, or move across the globe. Not to denigrate anyone’s feelings or experiences, but reading a book that causes you to be less sad sooner than you would have been otherwise, isn’t life-changing. That’s what books do. A book stays with us and becomes a favorite when it causes us to see the world from a different perspective, it challenges our preconceptions, it touches a nerve. Books are written to convey and to connect. The whole point of reading is to empathize with someone else, fictional or otherwise, to live in someone else’s skin. We love a book when we can relate, when the author is able to express in words our exact feelings, in a way that we couldn’t. This is why books exist. And, more often than not, a book becomes a favorite because we encountered it at just the right time, a time when we were particularly emotionally vulnerable, or needed reassurance or motivation or a compelling distraction. Most of the reasons people on this list claim a book changed their life have less to do with the book and more to do with how they were feeling at the time they picked it up, and how they then felt afterward. For some of these, it could have been any book. This is why people turn to books.

The problem I have with the phrase ‘life-changing’ is that it’s another over-used phrase, e.g., ‘The new Starbucks chestnut praline latte will change your life.’ Louis CK has an amazing bit about the way people talk and how we’re ruining language. ‘Ruining’ in the sense that our standards have drastically changed if a hotdog can be amazing. We’ve changed the value of words. Some just call this exaggerating. But it’s become ingrained in the way we describe things. Why are our coffee shops overrun with irony-spouting hipsters? Because our language has been devalued. It’s just too easy to be sarcastic. Our language is infused with irony because our adjectives don’t mean what they once did. Now just about anything can be amazing.

I’m not particularly bothered by the over-use of ‘amazing,’ ‘awesome,’ etc., because I have had amazing cupcakes and bought socks that are incredibly warm. But I do think there should be a line, and it should come just before life-changing.

Buzzfeed’s list should just be, ’51 People Who Understand Why Reading is Necessary, Why Reading Books, Hearing the Words in Your Own Head, in Your Own Voice, is Often Preferable and More Affective Than Watching any Tear-Jerker.’ Or, ’51 Books That Do What Books Do Best.’ Or, just, ’51 Books That Are Books.’ But I suppose their original list title is a bit snappier.

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