Is it Mee-Mee or Meam?

I confess, I don’t know what a meme is, or how it’s pronounced. I see it used a lot, and I think it’s like the word “meta” — something I wouldn’t like, something sort of ironic and self-conscious and twenty-first century. I’ve never even looked the word meme up, fearing it will make me feel inadequate and uncool, like semiotics.

So, when the sweet Miss Almost Bluestocking asked me to answer some questions about books, and called these questions a meme, I had a moment of weird anti-technology poo-pooing. The kind of thing I shouldn’t admit, come to think of it. But since I’m being honest here, I’ll just say that when I do this I generally think, “a forty-six year old woman does not [fill in the blank — in this case it’s meme]. ”  You know, it could look undignified.

And then I thought, well goodness, how is it going to hurt you to do something new, missy? They’re just questions. I answer questions all the time. (Mom, how much was a penny worth when you were a kid? is the kind of question I’m called on to answer all the time. That, and “Who has the world’s biggest army?”) And at least these are questions that have nothing to do with weapons or candy. And they’re interesting (and Ms. Bluestocking has interesting answers.)

Here are the questions. And here are my answers. Come to think of it, though, I’d actually rather hear YOUR answer, Dear Reader, if you want to give this a go.

Here’s what I want you to do. Imagine Terry Gross, of National Public Radio, is asking you these questions on her radio show, the one where she only interviews people worth hearing from. You’ve just won a Pulitzer, or some such honor. You’re feeling humble, a bit besieged by all the interest in you, but secretly hoping the guy (or girl) who dumped you in college is listening and regretting his behavior. By the way, you’re actually not really besieged, you’re just acting that way because it seems properly modest. In fact, you’re beyond thrilled that Terry Gross cares even the tiniest bit what you think about anything at all. Got that? Okay, I think we’re ready for the mee-mee.  Wipe the cream cheese off your nose.  Okay.  We’re set.

  1. One book that changed your life.
    No book. I don’t think books change your life. I think they do something even better: as they teach you to be a better reader, books help you acquire skills to live a happier life. Two examples: Mysteries help you learn to spot the bad guy. Poetry helps you learn to express yourself succinctly. I could go on, but I think these answers are supposed to be succinct.
  2. One book that you’ve read more than once. The Odyssey. Every fall for about ten years, I would re-read the Odyssey. I loved the fact that I found something new every time I read it. I also love the way it’s structured, with the framing device of Telemachus’s journey. And although I’m a peace loving woman, I really like that scene where Odysseus and his son give the rotten suitors what they deserve.
  3. One book you’d want on a desert island.
    Shakespeare. Collected Works. I hope that’s not cheating. It’s all there: history, comedy, tragedy. Poetry.
  4. One book that made you laugh.
    That very funny book by David Sedaris, the name of which escapes me — the one where he describes learning to speak French and what an idiot he is. I like him very much, and have adored him ever since I heard him describe on National Public Radio his adventures as a department store elf during the holiday season.
  5. One book that made you cry.
    Oh, definitely, that would be Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. I think it’s seeing the truth through the eyes of a repressed narrator that did it for me. I found it unbearably sad to be in the head of a man who didn’t know how to secure his own happiness.
  6. One book that you wish had been written.
    What a great question. I think the answer to this is almost always the last book of a writer you didn’t know had died until you asked for the next book and found out there weren’t anymore. The most recent sad example of this is Sebald, the great German writer who died not long after Austerlitz came out — such a wonderful and important book. And you just knew he had more to say.
  7. One book that you wish had never been written.
    I’m a first amendment absolutist. There’s no such book.
  8. One book you’re currently reading.
    Trollope’s Barchester Towers.
  9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.
    Swann’s Way. I actually have sort of read this before — through the gestation and births of three children. By the time I got to the end I had no idea what had happened in the beginning. I wonder if it will be different now that I’m not sleepless and nursing. I have a new translation, a Penguin one. We’ll see.

So, okay, that wasn’t too bad. I was sipping a champagne cocktail while I did that, could you tell? And I was wearing a great pair of sling backs. And a slick pencil skirt. I looked famous, and properly fit (not too thin, not too plump — but clearly able to sword fight my way out of the radio station if necessary.) Even though it was a radio audience, everybody could tell there was a pencil skirt involved.  Terry kept smiling at me and refilling my glass. (Were you listening, college boyfriend? Are you sorry now??) Anyway, Dear Reader, it’s your turn. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.


25 thoughts on “Is it Mee-Mee or Meam?

  1. Haha, I didn’t realize it would throw you for such a loop! I’ll confess, reared in the computer age, I didn’t know how it was pronounced, either. So, to put an end to both of our frustrations, I looked it up: meam. See? Learned something new. Make you feel younger?

  2. Don’t worry, Bloglily, I didn’t know what a meme was either. Except maybe that it was some weird tekkie take on a French form of entertainment.

  3. Brava, BL. My-My. What a piece of post that is. The pencil skirt was just right for a self-admitted Staedtler fetishist, such as yourself. Do you have a German fellow come into your office every week and sharpen it? Or do they have salons for that sort of thing? Nails and Skirts Sharpened As You Read and Like Shakespeare. (sorry)

    I didn’t really know what a meme was until I started reading books on consciousness and evolution last year. Maybe I knew and forgot, just to illustrate how un-meme-ish the concept is. It is certainly a tad arrogant of writers and philosophers to think their ideas and expressions can perpetuate, take on a life of their own, like genes, and have a great influence on other minds, around the corner or down the line. I like your “me-me” interpretation. Fits the smuggishness of the concept.

    Actually, your view is on target with this quote from “The Future of the Brain” by Steven Rose that I am now reading– “As natural selection involves differential breeding and survival as a motor of evolutionary change, it is hard to see a similar process operating in human cultures, despite the strangely popular notion of so-called memes as units of culture by analogy with genes, initially proposed almost as a throwaway bon mot by Richard Dawkins, but now taken seriously by many who should know better.” (p 93)

  4. Dorothy, Don’t you think this post should count as a sort of meta-meme? If so, do I get another champagne cocktail? (Sorry, I need to go and eat my dinner and stop with the meming)

    Smokey, I just KNEW it was something like that, something abstract and semioticist, the sort of thing you can only talk about when you’re smoking a gitane and throwing your hands around.

  5. BL: Is the David Sedaris book you’re thinking of “Me Talk Pretty One Day”? I had not heard of him before picking this book up, on spec, in the bookshop sometime last year. I had to stop reading it at bedtime simply because I was waking both my husband and the cat with my laughter. Oh, and it shouldn’t be read on trains either.

    Wonderful post – I might have to try the me-me (and that’s how I’ve always heard the word in my head) myself.

  6. Yes, that’s exactly it! I think it’s a gem.

    Kerryn — I do hope you answer these questions yourself and let us know when you’ve done it. In fact, I officially tag you and LK and Smokey and anyone else who hasn’t already answered them. The only twist is that you have to set the scene for answering these questions. Are you being interrogated? Are you speaking to Barbara Walters? Are you wearing a cape and walking into a cafe in Paris? You get the idea.

  7. I always thought it’s supposed to ‘meam’ since it’s a mental variation on the gene which is not supposed to be pronounced ‘jeenee’. On the other hand, ‘meme’ sounds friendlier.

    And I’ll do the questions later on, promise.

  8. Oh for goodness sakes Lily, don’t go all Luddite on us (smile). Neither meme nor meta are especially technical.

    Meme comes from a very old book that I first read 30 years ago, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. A seminal work, so to speak 😉

    It’s nothing more than the concept that ideas have a life of their own, and evolve like organisms do, with analogous evolutionary processes.


  9. Lily the Luddite. Naahhh… That sounds more like Dad. 🙂

    Seriously, do you recognise these words?

    One book that changed my world.

    The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is farthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it so one could be taken to look at the doll’s houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day. If the weather were not too wet, one was expect to “save the penny and walk.”

    The last line of the book is:

    “I wonder” – Petrova looked up – “if other girls had to be one of us, which one of us they’d choose to be?”

    I have a memory of you writing a letter to the author of that series of books. It’s the first book I remember you reading.

    It’s the book I’m going to share with Alyssa. She’s finally reading for pleasure. After that I’ll show her Mara Daughter of the Nile. I don’t remember the author of that book. But we can look it up together.

  10. Ah, my family is in the room. (In case you want to know the cast of characters, I have four siblings.  My three brothers are Ed, Tom and Mike.  My sister is Sue.  They’re all older than me except Mike who’s just a baby.)  Ed, it’s all about being afraid I’m actually a lot stupider than I am. (Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said, “I’m not as dumb as I am”?) Anyway, there are some words whose definitions are just so abstract I can never, ever remember what they mean. It’s scary, like being demented. I like words that come with a mental picture. Meme, alas, is not one of those words.

    Sue, of course I remember! Thank you for reminding me. That’s Noel Straetfield. I loved those shoes books so much. (Was that one ballet shoes?) She did indeed answer my fan letter, on beautiful blue airmail paper. I still have the letter. It reminds me I’ve wanted to write books my whole life.

    LK — You crack me up. I can tell you’re doing your meme dressed in a long white slinky evening dress.  I’m seeing satin, actually.
    Kerryn and Edwin — Kudos to you two for great meme responses!

  11. Here are my answers to the famous Blily Book Questionnaire. I would just as soon be interviewed by Bill Moyers, the Dalai Lama, and Jimmy Carter all of us sipping lemonade iced tea on the front porch of my childhood house in Ohio after winning simultaneous Nobel prizes in Physics, Literature, and Peace following a successful effort with his Holiness and the former president to get disparate nationalities and religions all over the world to build houses together instead of bombing them. My mother and father would take a break from their busy teaching schedules and child rearing to sit unobtrusively with us and listen happily.

    1. One book that changed your life.
    The children’s book The Three Billy Goats Gruff with the ugly scary Troll waiting under the bridge. Scared the hell out of me. Gave me bad dreams for years about monsters under the stairs, in the basement, the garage out back, in the dark mornings when I biked out to deliver newspapers, and in audiences later when I gave talks. The pages were thickish with a mottled, embossie surface like I imagine a death sentence would be printed on. And the pages smelled funny, like the moldy old box they were stored in. I did get over it in fifty years after reading books that I chose, but why do parents read such things to children?

    2. One book that you’ve read more than once
    Sadly, I’m not a reader like you lit majors. I never read books more than once. I studied as an engineer and scientist. I just did the exercises and read the text if it helped. I wanted to get through as fast and painlessly as possible. More sadly, I wasn’t that inquisitive. So I didn’t develop the habit or reading. But lately, as I have realized I don’t know anything about the universe and myself, I’ve been reading like crazy. Some books on consciousness are so dense, even though well written, that I do have to read parts over, after I’ve read a couple other books on the same subject. So I’m doing that for information and understanding, not for pleasure. (I do know you lit majors are reading for truth as well as pleasure, aren’t you? So I’m not being smug, am I?)
    3. One book you’d want on a desert island.
    On a desert island I would want a lot of things. Books wouldn’t be as important as bug repellent, some tools to make games with, and a very smart, humorous woman; but they would be essential, as would a bunch of notebooks and pencils, and some waterproof bottles to stuff the writings into, with some labels that say “World-Saving Memes Within.” The one book might have to be something like The Complete History of Chemistry, Physics, Neuroscience, Consciousness and Poetry. so that I could keep trying to figure it all out. (Speaking of cheating.) “It’s all there: history, comedy, tragedy. poetry.”

    4. One book that made you laugh.
    Either Garp or Catch 22. Fell out of every chair I read them in.

    5. One book that made you cry.
    Max Born’s Principles of Optics: Electromagnetic Theory of Propagation, Interference and Diffraction of Light. This along with Differential Calculus and Advanced French were the first three subjects I realized I had to study for after twenty-odd years in school. So flunked the first, got a D in the second and had to drop the class for the third, which crying and reason brought me to. Fortunately, I changed my view of college, recovered, and graduated a bunch of times. Sorry to punt on this, but I can’t remember the actual stories I cried over. But there were some. Besides Bambi, (of which I have a first edition. You should check who the author is.)

    6. One book that you wish had been written.
    Same answer as number 3. The Complete History of Chemistry, Physics, Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Poetry

    7. One book that you wish had never been written.
    Same answer as number 5—Principles of Optics.

    8. One book you’re currently reading.
    Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice. His commentary on poems and poets, including Neruda, Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, Lowell, and a hundred others. I’m always reading it. In fact it could be an answer for Number 2, a book I’ve read more than once.

    9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.
    Well, I have a stack and I don’t’ remember the top one but it’s another book on consciousness. But the stack isn’t what you meant. I think it may be a complete collection of Wallace Stevens poetry, so long as there a few writer/poet friends around who will help me with some of them.

  12. Bloglily,

    I can so relate to your statement that “there are some words whose definitions are just so abstract I can never, ever remember what they mean”! “Hermeneutics” and “epistomology” are at the top of that list for me. Alas, both are concepts that are raised with some frequency in the feminist legal theory seminar that I teach. In fact I used to feel the same about “pedagogy” but fortunately, now that I make my living through it, I seem to have that one down!

  13. Hi Sue — terrific pictures. What a nice sister you are.

    Smokey –It’s so interesting hearing the answer to these questions from someone who’s a scientist (and, I might add, a very accomplished poet). I particularly liked hearing about what made you cry! And I am so sorry about your early experience with the Three Billy Goats Gruff. My youngest son was also terrified of the troll and the book he encountered him in wasn’t even smelly.

    Nova–I hope you’re feeling cool-ish over there in hot NYC. By the way, have you given these questions a try? You have some fabulous lists already on your site, which is why I ask.

    Hey Kate — I had no idea you taught feminist legal theory. When I was in law school I was the editor of the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal. Some of the people I like the most from that time worked on that journal. I think some of our articles might have been tedious, but we had fun, painting our tiny room purple. By the way, I read your other story today, the one called Cool. I liked it very much. You and Nova and Smokey are some terrific writers.  (Nor should it be forgotten that Sue Crocker takes really fine photographs and is no slouch with the word either.)

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  15. I’m a little late to this but I’ve been thinking about it.

    First though, I liked that ‘sword fight your way out of the radio station if necessary.’ I get a kind of Errol Flynn ambience happening there.

    But my own effort on the questions got kind of long-winded so I made a post out of it for fun…

  16. Exactly. Errol Flynn, only in wicked heels and a pencil skirt. Reminds me of that joke about how Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire could do, but she had to do it backwards (I guess because she was coming down the stairs backwards, with him in the lead…) And now, time to go check out your mmeeemmmeee.

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