From the Intern Desk: A Review of Recommended Reading Lists

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Ariel Katz, our summer Bulldog (that’s not as degrading as it seems), left us with a very sweet thank you note, a happy bromeliad, and a final blog post about Buzzfeed and the website’s  ”Recommended Reading” lists. Most folks are thankful for a brief escape from work and quick glimpse into the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, often woeful lists comprised of bits of news, (mostly) celebrity gossip, or pop culture the staff of Buzzfeed put together, but for Ms. Katz their book lists leave something to be desired.

Ariel Katz, former Bulldog in the Bluegrass for Sarabande Books:

Lists annoy me.  My Facebook newsfeed, itself a pretty irritating list, is inundated with “articles” from sites like Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog that put everything from kittens to politicians into numbered categories.  It’s disturbing that my generation spends so much time sharing punchy one-line, image-heavy jokes and ideas.  It is less often that we send each other books or even long articles to read and discuss slowly.  So when Buzzfeed announced the “books” section on its site, I rolled my eyes.  It includes lists like “21 Books That Will Teach You Something Important” and “15 Books That Changed You Profoundly.”  If anything shouldn’t be reduced to a list, it’s people’s feelings about books, which are (usually) complex and personal. 

This was until I realized that Buzzfeed’s purpose isn’t to share ideas.  The judgments made on its lists are not analytical: they’re cultural criticism at its most consumable level.  Buzzfeed exists to create, well, buzz, and to entertain. Its aim is to catch the browsers’ attention with numbers, pictures, and lots of adjectives.  If we view books as Great Art, sharing them in this currency might feel disrespectful.  Ultimately, though, we want books to go viral and love it when they do.

Despite the peppy language of the lists and their advertising-filled layout, Buzzfeed recommends some good books and spreads some important literary news (see their list “The incredibly diverse 2013 Man Booker Fiction Prize nominees”). Right now a lot of the buzz focuses on easy-to-relate-to novels.  These include children’s books likeHarry PotterCharlotte’s Web, and The Giver, as well as those books many of us read in high school or college classrooms, such as The Great Gatsby or On the Road.  But David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Mary McCarthy, and Jhumpa Lahiri have made it onto some of the lists, too.  Maybe as the Buzzfeed Books fan base builds it will expand its power of hype to those books off the beaten path, say, 17 Most Incredibly Awesome Books Published by Small Literary Presses?  Books don’t always need commentary: they sometimes just need exposure, and Buzzfeed Books gets that done, even if seeing “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” turned into an infographic with anthropomorphic blackbirds makes me cringe.