A sentence goes viral—why?
Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr
I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.
I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.
The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:
Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.
Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.
I ran the sentence through Google and was stunned, bewildered, and a little appalled to get more than two thousand hits. Now, I understand that at a time when the most popular video on YouTube has received more than two billion views, some people might question my characterization of two thousand hits as viral, especially since many of those would likely be duplicates. But this sentence figures in a twelve-year-old book published before YouTube and Kindle even existed, a book that has almost certainly not sold more than five thousand copies in all its years in print. And though it gets 4.5 stars on Amazon, where some kind readers have characterized it as a “fine blend of erudition and entertainment,” “delightful,” and “witty, charming, informative,” it still ranks at 5,537,391 on that site’s best-seller list. So, to me, the mere fact that this lone sentence from that obscure book had, after a decade of almost total oblivion, found its way onto hundreds, if not thousands, of individual Web sites seemed nothing less than astounding and inexplicable. I decided in my mind to call the event “viral,” in part because it seemed unlikely that anything else in my life or career would ever again have such a plausible claim to that distinction.
As I read through a portion of those sites on which my sentence appeared, I made a number of discoveries. My sentence was known to people from Florida to Arizona to Washington State, and from Canada through Jamaica, Poland, Lebanon, Kenya, South Africa, and India to the Philippines and Indonesia. I found that it was quoted most often on the Facebook pages and Web sites of hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, and catering companies. It appeared frequently on quote pages, such as those of Goodreads and searchquotes.com, but it was also very popular among Pinterest users; on food, travel, and hospitality blogs; and, to my biggest surprise, on a broad cross-section of personal Christian blogs and Church Web sites. It was quoted by one dating service and by the New Age organization Waincraft, under the rubric “Getting to Know the Powers of the Sky.”
To their credit, almost every single quoter graciously cited me as the author of the sentence. Most of them used it as an epigraph, usually italicized—a kind of welcome mat at the top of the page. That was equally true whether my sentence was quoted by the Christian Web site kd316.com, which used it to open an essay on “Marriage, Ministry and Hospitality;” by the Oldways organization, whose mission “is to guide people to good health through heritage” and which appended it to a recipe for orange-scented faro with figs and pistachios; by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Tourism Coalition; by Steve and Denise Haerr on their blog “Haerr Trippin’,” as an addendum to their post on “Our phenomenal weekend in Long Beach with Tom and Chris”; by the Rainbowspotholes blog in a review of La Mama restaurant in Warsaw, Poland, entitled “The Worst Nigerian Restaurant. Ever.”; by the Tu-tu-tu Kitchenware Cottage in Newport, Oregon, the Relax ’N Go Massage at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, the Milele Beach Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the Bella Jo food company in KwaZulu-Natal, as a kind of verbal garnish to their olive-tagliatelle recipe; by the St. Dominic Savio High School in Mumbai, India, on the Web page for day three of its science exhibition; by Stephanie Knepper on her Pinterest page “If I ran a bed and breakfast…”; and in the transcript of chapter 3, “Rooms Divisions Operations,” of Camille Padilla’s online video series How Does a Big Hotel Run? Conversely, Etiquette Encyclopedia and Blog used my sentence as the legend for an engraving illustrating Russian hospitality during the time of Ivan the Terrible.
I didn’t know what to make of any of this—or if there was anything to be made of it. Was there anything here worth thinking about, or was it just one of those things that happens in the modern world, one of those phenomena that appears to be all demographics and no psychology, all twenty-first century and no twentieth? Was it something in which I should take professional pride? I couldn’t say.
Let’s set aside the question of how all these people and companies throughout the world had found their way to my sentence. The electronic planet is a big and ecumenical place, and it’s not so hard (or especially interesting) to speculate about how an obscure sentiment had traveled along its trade winds and settled like invisible spore on distant shores. It happened to my sentence—people discovered it growing unseen under some shrubbery somewhere; they liked what they saw, dug it up, and planted it in a pot by their front door to welcome strangers in.
What was more fascinating to me, in the early blush of my discovery, was how this one simple sentence had been adopted as a motto by so many unconnected and disparate strangers. The Seventh Day Adventist in Montego Bay; the marathon runner in Rome; the Filipino English tutor; the instructor from the Infinite Bliss Yoga Collective—all over the world, they had all read the sentence somewhere and been touched by it in some way. I don’t mean or need to make more of this than is there—nobody, I assume, took my sentence and fashioned a religion around it or made it their life’s mission or quit their job or left their family because of it. But they had all found something in it that resonated; they had all felt that it reflected something important about themselves and their own beliefs about human connection and spirituality. And as I thought these ramifications through, I realized that they had all felt strongly enough about it to copy it from its source and post it over their own virtual door as a way to lure in wary strangers and say, This is who I am. Welcome to my world. I mean, what better reaction could any writer hope for to his work? Is it not precisely what every writer hopes to achieve? They had taken my work and made it their own, assimilated it into their own lives.
And that’s when I began to feel distinctly uneasy about the whole thing. Because the more I thought about it, and the more those same words rattled around in my head, the more I came to see what a truly, deeply rotten sentence it really is:
Every time I read it now I am pained, because I find it trite, lazy, obvious, and grammatically dubious. I am not an especially modest person, and when something I’ve written strikes me as felicitous I can be supremely impressed with myself. The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, despite being my first foray into nonfiction, is the first book I wrote that I am rather pleased with, and it has lots of complex, elegant, and well-ordered sentences in it. But this isn’t one of them—yet this is the one that went viral. Why?
Well, undeniably, there is the lowest-common-denominator factor. While some of my readers may appreciate my writing when it is at its most incisive, lyrical, and probing, the evidence would seem to suggest that most appreciate it more when it is sentimental, syntactically flabby, and shallow. After all, let’s look at what the sentence is really saying. It boils down to little more than the platitude that it is more rewarding to eat with other people than by oneself—a sentiment that most of us take for granted and might well have gone unsaid. I, however, seem to have chosen a few lapidary words—communion, multiples, with whom—to dress up a generic commonplace as an epigram that will fool none but those who are too easily pleased. The word communion in particular seems to have been the draw for those who would read religious or spiritual undertones into the statement, which may well explain why it is so popular among observant Christians. In the long run, the qualities that appear to have made the sentence appeal to such a wide and varied cross-section of humankind are the very ones that I, as its creator, would be first to repudiate: vacuity, pretension, inoffensiveness.
There is also the problem of grammar. In the first clause and its subsidiary, the verb “to be” has two subjects, “eating” and “hospitality,” yet it is conjugated in the third-person singular: “is a communion.” I seem to have been determined at all costs to avoid having to write “are a communion,” which could well ring awkward. But the immediate context of the surrounding paragraph is one of eating and the overall context of the book is that of hospitality, and I seem to have been reluctant to pass up the chance to bring both contexts into play. So instead of giving serious thought to how the immediate related to the general, and how that might best be expressed in an analytical yet concise chain of inference, I embedded one critical element of the chain—“and hospitality in general”—within a very weak pair of parenthetical commas and pretended that “eating” was the only subject of the verb. I am no grammarian, but I am fairly certain that this constitutes both a grammatical error and lazy writing. None of those who appropriated my sentence seems to have noticed or to have cared. It may even be true that it would have appealed to fewer people if it had begun “Eating and hospitality in general are a communion…”
There is, finally, a problem of style. I don’t do a lot of teaching, but when I do, the one thing I always emphasize is that every word has to count. This is hardly cutting-edge advice, yet here was an entire sentence that proved me incapable of following even the simplest tenets of my own philosophy—either I did not play by my own rules, or, worse yet, the standards I had applied to my own writing were bogus. Either way, it was yet another demonstration that my readers and I were unable to make common cause, like two people who find themselves sitting next to each other at a banquet, one believing that he is at a wedding and the other that he is at a wake.
But these conclusions bring with them their own set of dilemmas for the writer. How can I be grateful that readers have found something worthwhile in my writing, even if it is only a sentence, and at the same time condemn and condescend to them for their poor judgment? Could I ever accept the idea of myself as the kind of writer, or human being, who would sneer at his own admirers for their lack of refinement and discrimination—even if, in this case, they had not actually ever read any of my books but had merely adopted a random sentence of mine as their transitory watchword? Would it not be more gracious and humble of me to embrace the possibility that my readers had found something in my work that was in some way important to them yet invisible to me—that they were blind to the flaws and banality of the sentence because they had seen the inner truth of the sentiments it enfolded?
Do writers even know what they mean when they talk about their “readers”? Generally speaking, I imagine most of us don’t give the definition a lot of thought, and if we did, we might say, obviously enough, that a reader is someone who buys our books. The expression “my readers,” then, refers to a generic community of people who are united solely by their common willingness to pay to read my work. But of course, people who read my work in library books and in magazines at the dentist’s office and free online are equally my readers, aren’t they? What about those who borrow my books from their friends? Or someone who picks up a discarded newspaper on the subway, flicks through it to pass the time, finds my op-ed and chooses, of all things, to read that until she reaches her destination? Doesn’t she have as much claim as anyone else to being “my” reader? So yes, the event planner in Washington, D.C., who borrows my sentence to adorn her “Tablescapes and Themes” Pinterest page is “my reader” and deserving of my gratitude, respect, and consideration. If she found something worthwhile in something I created, it is almost certainly my job not to dismiss her judgment or question her profundity but to take another look at my work and see if I can find what someone else found in it. To call this a humbling exercise is to put it mildly, but that is surely what makes it worth undertaking above all. We need to be reminded every day that our work must not and cannot be about ourselves and that we can see nothing of the world when an oversize ego is always standing in the way.
And that is the core question raised, at least for me, by this misadventure with my viral sentence. We say we are writing for others, to communicate with other minds, with our own pasts and with the unknown future, yet how much, if anything, do we know about what those others are looking for in our work? The relationship between a writer and a reader is generally taken to be complementary but nonreciprocal—that is, they need one another, but it’s always the same one who gives and the other who receives. Neither of them necessarily has to understand the nature of the gift that is on offer, but they both have to acknowledge—one with relief, the other with gratitude—that a transaction has been effected. You usually choose a gift based on what you know, or think you know, about the recipient, but the truth is, we know nothing at all about our readers or what they want; even the most cynical author of pulp romances, hitting every bullet point on his way to the next paycheck, has no idea what goes on in the minds and hearts of the thousands of anonymous souls who seek out his work or stumble upon it in the airport or at the bus depot. Most of us can barely grasp the garbled, half-formed cries for help and understanding that our own subaqueous instincts and desires send rising to the surface of our consciousness and which burst upon arrival with no more intellectual coherence than a belch or a drunken mutter. In many cases, it is precisely to learn their subverbal language that we take up the pen in the first place. So when we do hit the mark with a reader or readers, it is usually at random, inadvertently, and to our own surprise. We have no better idea of how we did it than we do of why our hearts sing one day and weep the next, and certainly very little sense of how can we do it again the next time. We can only know that, at our best, we tried to say something true, and somebody heard it—what that truth was, and how it was understood by strangers halfway across the world, is anybody’s guess. It is a communion, and like all communions a mystery, and improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.
Jesse Browner’s latest book, How Did I Get Here?, is out today.
Last / Next Article