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Books and Reality Shows

Reality shows: fun to watch, and sometimes a bummer to binge.  So if The Real World (not to mention the real world) has you down, why not dip into a fictional world for a change of pace?

If you like Survivor

Lord of the Flies: William Golding, E. L. Epstein: 9780399501487 ...The show has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and with good reason: William Golding’s novel is the original combination of island survival and nasty (even deadly) jockeying for social position.  But if you want to explore life on a desert island without worrying about who gets voted off, may we also suggest Robinson Crusoe?  It’s a stranger novel than the cultural echoes of it in movies like Castaway (and Robinson himself is less charming than Tom Hanks), and sheds a light on how eighteenth-century British people imagined the Caribbean: a place of quick fortunes and quicker ruin, shaped by cross-cultural contact and conflict.

If you like The Real Housewives

The title character of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was a literary scandal in her day: a frustrated housewife whose craving for romance and glamour leads her to stray from her husband and spend above her means.  Imagine a French, female Jay Gatsby, with similar goals but less power to achieve them.

If you like The Bachelor

Pride and Prejudice (Puffin Classics): Austen, Jane“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  The famous first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice introduces us to a world of competitive courtship.  Landing a well-off  husband is the only way for Austen’s women to move up (or avoid moving down) in the world, and in this fast-paced game of musical chairs it becomes crucial to understand other players’ true motivations: in Bachelor-speak, who is “there for the right reasons.”  There’s no hot tub hijinks or fantasy suite here, but Austen’s witty style is its own sinful pleasure.

If you like The Amazing Race

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne: 9780141366296 ...Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (audiobook) is an adventure romp that does what it says on the label: adventurer Phineas Fogg and his valet Passepartout (French for “go everywhere”) cross the globe in eighty days to win a bet.  Verne, author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, is considered an early science fiction writer, and this too was a kind of science fiction in its day — the spread of railways and steamships had only just made this kind of trip possible.

If you like Love is Blind

This one is a bit of a stretch, but have you heard of the novel Blindness by Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago?  A mysterious plague has made all the residents of a town (except for one) blind, and the social order breaks down into chaos.  If that feels too real right now, we understand.

If you like The Deadliest Catch

The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway, ErnestThis long-running show explores commercial crab-fishing in the near-Arctic waters of the Bering Sea, one of the most dangerous industries in America.  Ernest Hemingway’s short novel The Old Man and the Sea takes place in the warmer waters of the Caribbean, but the expedition proves no less dangerous.  Hemingway’s simple, understated sentences have inspired generations of writers: like little waves on the surface of deep water, they suggest powerful undertows of emotions beneath.

If you like Big Brother

This one seems deceptively obvious: the name of the show comes from George Orwell’s 1984, in which a totalitarian state watches its citizens’ every move.  But hidden cameras aside, perhaps the closer analogy is French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three people trapped in a room together slowly realize they have been carefully selected to get on each other’s nerves for eternity.  As one character surmises, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” — “Hell is other people.”

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