On cultural memory

Interesting discovery earlier this week: I do a trivia question for my kids every week, right? Usually something connected to history, but not always. It’s completely optional and not for a grade; the people who get it right get a piece of candy on Friday and that’s really it. Just a little fun thing.

This month’s questions have all been about women, since it’s Women’s History Month, and this week’s was Who is the highest-selling woman author in the world? I was pretty certain I knew the answer, but I needed to double-check it before posting the question, because if I was wrong and it turned out to be She Who Shall Not Be Named, I was going to have to come up with a different question.

And I found a list— not perfect, Wikipedia admits– of the top-selling authors of all time. And it’s shocking, because of the number of authors on it that I have never heard of. Now, granted, people have been writing books for a long time, and I can’t read or know about all of them, but given how much of my life I have dedicated to reading and books, even given that several of them aren’t close to being in my genre, the fact that I haven’t ever heard of half of the top ten– half!— frankly blows my mind. Here’s the list:

  1. William Shakespeare. And, okay, yeah. I feel like there’s an argument to be made that Shakespeare doesn’t belong on the same list as the rest of these people, since he was a playwright and not a novelist or actual prose author, but I’m not going to make that argument right now. At any rate, I’ve heard of and read Shakespeare.
  2. Agatha Christie, meaning that my guess about the best-selling woman author was correct. Somewhere between two and four billion books sold. I have read three of them.
  3. Barbara Cartland, who I have never heard of in my entire life despite the fact that she has written seven hundred and twenty-three books and sold a billion copies of those books. I don’t read romance, granted! But how the hell have I never heard of her??
  4. Danielle Steel. Wouldn’t have guessed that she was this big-time, but okay. I haven’t read anything by her but at least I’m familiar with her.
  5. Harold Robbins. No idea. 23 books, American, around 750 million sales. Never heard of him.
  6. Georges Simenon. I’ll cut myself a bit of slack because he wrote in French and is Belgian, but there are 700 million copies of his 570 books out there and I’ve never seen one in translation? Fucking seriously? HOW??
  7. She Who Shall Not Be Named. Whatever.
  8. Enid Blyton. I think that maybe if you’d asked me who Enid Blyton was before I saw this list I might have been able to say she was an author. Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to provide more detail than that, and I’m willing to toss her on the “never heard of” pile.
  9. Sidney Sheldon. Between 370 and 600 million books sold. A suspense author, so his(?) books are probably much more aligned to my tastes. No clue.
  10. Eiichiro Oda. I’ll call him a .5, because I’ve never heard his name, but he’s the One Piece guy and I’ve heard of One Piece.

I have also never heard of #11, Gilbert Patten, #13, Akira Toriyama, but see Oda because it’s a similar situation, or #15, a Spaniard named Corin Tellado who supposedly has written four thousand books. Weirdly, after that, you have to roll through a couple dozen before I hit someone I’m unfamiliar with, and there are no American or English authors on the rest of the list who I’ve never heard of.

(Also, I just went and checked dates, and there are only three in the top 10 whose lives didn’t overlap with mine: Shakespeare, of course; Blyton, who died in 1964, and, ironically, Christie, who died six months before I was born. These are not nineteenth-century authors or anything, with the obvious exception of Shakespeare. They are all relatively modern.)

How the hell do you sell a billion books and you leave so small (or so specific) a cultural footprint that I, a person who has been reading constantly for his entire life, have never heard of you? I know I’m edging toward– if not trampling on– the idea that Nothing I Haven’t Heard Of Is Important, which I don’t believe, but books are kind of my thing, and the notion that I don’t know half of the top 10 writers who ever lived is weird, right? And not weird in a “something is wrong with me” type of way, but in a “something’s going on here” sort of way? Is romance that sequestered from every other genre of writing that this is normal?

I dunno. How many of these ten authors have you heard of? Is there anybody reading this who knows all ten of them?

A TRUE TALE: The worst date I ever had

largeI don’t recall who I was talking to, but I was on Twitter not too long ago and talking to a few someones about dating.  We started one-upping each other about the worst dates we’d ever had.  I won, with this story, and it was requested that I give further details at some point in the future.  Having nothing else to talk about at the moment other than writing, and suspecting (as I do) that y’all may be tiring of reading about other words I’ve written, let’s tell a story about a bad date.

(The picture is relevant, for reasons I’m not going to reveal.)

There was a time in which I was doing a lot of online dating.  I was– and I’ll admit my grasp of the timeline here is a bit fuzzy– either in grad school or in between grad schools, and had discovered that Chicago had a high enough population density that finding potential dates through Match.com or whatever the name of the service Salon was using at the time was actually not too terribly difficult, even for someone with my, shall we say, nontraditional approach to personal beauty and somewhat suspect hobbies.

Point is, I found some sites that were full of women that weren’t too picky about appearances so long as you were interesting.  Turns out I can do that.  It was Nirvana.  I wasn’t dating a lot, but going out with 2-3 different women in a month wasn’t exactly unheard of, and compared to the entire rest of my dating history I felt like Casanova.

At some point, I got really mercenary about the “exchange lots of emails” part of the process, though.  One or two, and then if you were interesting I was looking for a phone number and a date somewhere public.  I managed to attract the attention of a cute redhead, which was like the promised land as far as I was concerned.  I have always, my entire life, been hugely into redheads, and redheads have never ever wanted to have anything to do with me.  In fact, truth: this date I’m about to describe was the only date I’ve ever had with a redhead.  I love them.  They don’t love me back.

(My wife is a brunette.  Occasionally I get on her to dye her hair.  I got her into a reeeal deep auburn at one point; it’s as close as I’ve gotten.)

Right, so: This particular young lady made a request of me that, at the time, I found reasonable.  She asked that I not bring my cell phone along with me on the date.  Now, this was way before smartphones, and in fact it was long enough ago that the fact that I had a cellphone was still at least somewhat notable.  Nowadays, there’s no way that I comply with this request, and in fact I’ll find it a bit creepy.  Back then?  You don’t want me to bring my phone?  OK, sure.  I left it at home.  The plan: dinner, movie, “we’ll see.”  Typical, right?

She’d picked a restaurant near where she lived, which was on the north side of town.  Chicago’s easy enough to get around in that it’s difficult to get lost, but it was still in a part of town I was unfamiliar with.  Dinner was… weird.  We spent most of the meal arguing and taking shots at each other, in a way that felt like funny banter about 90% of the time and 10% of the time just seemed sorta bitter and mean.

Then, as we were paying for the food (strictly Dutch, by the way,) she wrote something down on a piece of paper and handed it to our waiter.  He gave both of us a weird look and moved on without saying anything.

“What was that?” I asked.

“My number,” she said.  “He’s cute.  I’ve been in here before.”

Now, at this point, most guys would have left, and it might be some sort of a commentary on my own self-confidence that I didn’t immediately end the date.  However, one thing I’d definitely learned about online dating?  Is that sometimes you go on a date for the date, and sometimes you go on a date for the story.  And this had just catapulted itself firmly into “good story” territory.  And she had a little twinkle in her eye that told me I was being tested somehow.

So.  We ain’t married, right?  I just met you.  Give dude your number, I don’t give a fuck.  It’s not like we didn’t meet online; I know we’re both seeing other people.

On to the movie!

Which was a little film by an independent filmmaker that both of us had heard of but neither of us knew much about named Darren Aronofsky.  (Ooh, wait, this means I can date the date!)

The movie?  Requiem for a Dream.  Which is totally the best date movie of all time.

(Admission: It’s possible it was Solaris, which was in 2002, and not RfaD, in 2000.  The Solaris date was godawful too, and I’m pretty sure I remember who that was with, and it wasn’t this girl.  But I’m having doubts right now.  Not big ones.  Pretty sure it was Requiem.  And Requiem’s definitely funnier, so let’s go with that.)

As we left the theater, we were joking about how terrifyingly inappropriate a movie we’d chosen, and one of us– I think it was me– started joking about how this had to be the worst date either of us had been on.  And we started comparing stories about shitty dates, while on a shitty date, and walking back to the car.  Like, trying to one-up each other, and come up with dates that we’d been on that were shittier than the one we were on.

In other words, the vibe was really weird.

And then she asked me if she could borrow my phone.

“I didn’t bring my phone.  You told me not to, remember?”

“Oh,” she says.  “I was going to call my friends and see where they’re at tonight.”

I raise an eyebrow.  Interesting.

“Well, we could go back to your place and just call somebody from there, and then head to wherever they are,” I said.

“Oh, you’re not going.  Would you mind giving me a ride, though?”  That twinkle was back in her eye; this was another test.

As it turned out, I did mind.  I took her back home, of course; I’d picked her up, so it was the proper thing to do, but I declined to deliver her to the next part of her evening.  The weird thing is that we both sorta shrugged it off; it’s coming off as astonishingly rude as I’m writing this, but remember that this was a blind date and this chick didn’t know me.  She’d made plans with her friends after the date.  That’s not actually a terrible thing, especially pre-cell-phone where otherwise I could have just taken off with her and nobody would have noticed for a couple of days.  Presumably they’d had something set up if the plan rapidly became I MUST BRING THIS MAN HOME AND BONE HIM IMMEDIATELY, but it’s not like I could get mad about it.

Sadly, there was not a second date.  I did email her again, mostly out of curiosity about how she’d actually thought the evening had gone without me there.  It’s weirdly meta, right, joking about how shitty a date is going while you’re on the date, and we’d already set up this weird bantering/picking on each other vibe, so… were either of us serious?  I have no idea.  I didn’t get a kiss at the end of the night, but the hug was a couple seconds longer than it needed to be.  Was that good?  No fuckin’ clue.

And that’s the worst date I’ve ever been on.

Addendum: When this popped back into my head a few weeks ago or however long it was, I looked her up.  She’s got an extremely uncommon name, and is in fact still using some of the online handles she was using back then, which I still recall on account of the date being memorable.  She appears to still be single and is now a hot redheaded librarian.  I will not be sending her a link to this post, although I admit I’m curious as to whether she remembers the date as well as I do.