Young people are constantly being warned that the information they include in their Facebook profiles could eventually come back to haunt them. Photographs of bacchanalian escapades, catastrophic sartorial decisions or intimate moments with toothless, tattooed recidivists are images that could prove embarrassing to Facebook participants in the years to come. As they mosey down life's highway, young people are cautioned, they may want to bury all evidence that they once spent a summer in Venezuela helping Hugo Chavez complete his society's leisurely transition from democracy to fascism, or that they once thought it was a good idea to date a mercenary, a Marilyn Manson look-alike or Hugo Chavez
But of all the personal information disclosed on Facebook -- and that includes those exquisitely pretentious quotes about the meaning of life -- it seems to me that the section with the greatest potential to catch up with people down the road is "Favorite Books."
My daughter, who graduated from Harvard in 2006, is constantly drawing my attention to the preferred reading materials of her classmates, ostensibly the future leaders of America. She does this not only because surveying the stratospheric level of post-adolescent glibness is more fun than a barrel of monkeys, or watching the Lakers, but because she believes that American society as a whole has a right to know what lies ahead as the best and the brightest move into leadership roles. By the looks of things, it is not going to be pretty.
The most striking thing about the Favorite Books section is the lack of hesitance to identify less-than-immortal books -- "The Godfather," "The Notebook," "The Da Vinci Code," assorted trash by David Baldacci -- as rave faves. This, coupled with the alarming popularity of the voluble crypto-fascist Ayn Rand, strongly suggests that the Ivies may not be getting the job done, culture-wise, these days.
Harvard Facebook users frequently commingle very good books ("Hamlet," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") with very bad books ("Atlas Shrugged," "The Alchemist," "The Notebook"), ostensibly in an effort to prove that while they are capable of lofty thought, they are also down-to-earth types and, in some cases, airheads. The problem is that there is a vast difference between enjoying trash -- which we all do -- and putting classics and trash on the same level. It hints at a disingenuous cultural schizophrenia, like pretending to enjoy both Miles Davis and Kenny Chesney.
One stylistic note to Facebook users: When citing one's favorite book, it isn't necessary to write "To His Coy Mistress" and then add, parenthetically, "(Marvell)." It defeats the purpose. One other thing: "To His Coy Mistress" isn't a book. It's a poem.
I'm not suggesting that young people today are dumber or less sophisticated than their forebears. I am merely saying that because previous generations lacked the technology to make their callowness available for all to see, they have been spared the pain of being ceaselessly reminded of the indiscretions of an intellectually derelict youth. Had Facebook existed when I was in college, the Favorite Books section for most members of my generation would have included such twaddle as Richard Brautigan's "Trout Fishing in America," Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan" and Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," as well as that sturdy old gasbag Jean-Paul Sartre's masterpiece, "Being and Nothingness."
In the place that should have been reserved for Homer, Tolstoy and Jane Austen, one would have found engaging gibberish like "Slaughterhouse Five," fashionable hokum like "Soul on Ice," maudlin hooey like "Love Story" and that vade mecum of the snotty adolescent, "The Catcher in the Rye." Coming completely clean, my own Facebook profile would have included "Tropic of Capricorn," "Sexus," "Nexus" and "Plexus" and "From Russia With Love." Where I would have found a wife is anybody's guess. It was hard enough without Facebook.
Before my daughter went to Harvard, I thought that everyone at the school was a ruthless, Machiavellian schemer who played the game of life like six-dimensional chess, cunningly plotting each move decades in advance. The Favorite Books section of Facebook suggests otherwise. No one whose favorite book is "The Da Vinci Code" is thinking six moves ahead. No one who adores "The Notebook" by Nicholas Sparks is seriously thinking about one day being up for tenure at MIT. Years from now, when Meghan or Skyler applies for that cushy job as chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that ancient Facebook entry is going to slither out of the crypt and smother those dreams.
"We don't let people whose favorite book as a young adult was 'The Little Prince' conduct tactical nuclear operations in the Middle East," will be the glacial rebuff from the powers that be. "It's just one of our rules."
Scrupulously fair, I checked my daughter's Facebook profile to see what books she most admired. "The Guns of August" was fine. So were her nods to Graham Greene, John Keegan and G.K. Chesterton. But then, omigod, right there, in black and white, was "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus. Camus, a grumpy existentialist sometimes described as "the philosopher of the teeny-boppers" by snooty French adults, is most famous for writing a book about a guy who goes to see the French equivalent of an Adam Sandler movie the day after his mother is buried, then capriciously murders an Arab, and then tries to blame it all on sunstroke.
Sorry, kiddo. That State Department job is out.
Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.