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A snapshot of student reading habits over two decades
From Why do Men Have Nipples? to the novels of J.K. Rowling and Jane Austen, surveys identify ephemeral, and enduring, undergrad reading choices

Steve Tollefson is director of UC Berkeley's Office of Educational Development, a lecturer in the College Writing Programs, and a recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award. He started the "Survey of Freshman Reading Habits" on a whim in 1987.

Top reads of UC Berkeley undergrads

 The Color Purple book  cover

1987 (ties indicated)

  1. The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
  2. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
  3. Catcher in the Rye
    (J.D. Salinger)
  4. It (Stephen King)
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    (Hunter S. Thompson)
  6. Black Boy  (Richard Wright)
    Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel)
    If Tomorrow Comes (Sidney Sheldon)
    Less than Zero (Brett Easton Ellis)
    Native Son (Richard Wright)
The Fountainhead book cover

1997 (ties indicated)

  1. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
  2. A Hundred Secret Senses
    (Amy Tan)
    Catcher in the Rye
    (J.D. Salinger)
  3. The Firm  (John Grisham)
    The Kitchen God's Wife (Amy Tan)
  4. How Stella Got Her Groove Back
    (Terry McMillan)
    Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
  5. 1984 (George Orwell)
    The Bible
    Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
    The Lost World (Michael Crichton)
    The Brothers Karamozov
    (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
    The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)   
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book cover

2007 (tie indicated)

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
    (J.K. Rowling)
  2. title unspecified (J.K. Rowling)
  3. The Kite Runner
    (Khaled Hosseini)
  4. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
  5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    (J.K. Rowling)
  6. 1984 (George Orwell)
  7. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  8. A Thousand Splendid Suns
    (Khaled Hosseini)
  9. Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
    Harry Potter and the Order
    of the Phoenix
    (J.K. Rowling)
— What books are students reading today, and how do their reading tastes differ from a generation ago? At UC Berkeley, three large surveys of freshmen were conducted over 20 years' time — in 1987, 1997, and 2007. Together these surveys offer glimmering, if unscientific, insights on student reading trends, such as the staying power of Kurt Vonnegut and resurging interest in Jane Austen.

Not surprisingly, the most rigorous of these surveys is the most recent — the web-based summer/fall 2007 Survey of New Students (SoNS). To the question "What was the last book you read for recreation or fun?" 2,785 freshmen responded — offering an amazing array of authors, from Camus, Huxley, Austen, Dumas, and Dickens to Barack Obama, Christopher Hitchens, and Cormac McCarthy. 

Millenials' faves

On Bullshit (Harry G. Frankfurt) shares that vast 2007 list with Dune (Frank Herbert),while How Soccer Explains the World (Franklin Foer) cohabits with Tender is the Night, Don Quixote, and Hamlet. Several students said they had read Hamlet on their own; only one felt the need to add "not kidding!"

Authors range from Toni Morrison, Upton Sinclair, Vladimir Nabokov, and Virginia Woolf to Robert Ludlum, the two Clives (Barker and Cussler), and Dean Koontz. Best sellers (literary and not) share the list with classics, science fiction, and mysteries.

Fiction dominates, though a substantial number of books mentioned are from the non-fiction shelves. Gary Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg had an advantage, as it was distributed free in fall 2007 to all freshmen in the campus's College of Letters and Science through a program called "On the Same Page." Other mentioned non-fiction titles include Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, the Dalai Lama's The Universe in a Single Atom, Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain).

The most-read author on the 2007 survey — no surprise here — is J.K. Rowling, with fully 30 percent of the students naming one of the Harry Potter books. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as you've heard thousands of times," one student wrote. Other authors in the top 12 were all very distant below Rowling.

A number of spiritually oriented and self-help books also made the cut — among them Secrets of Mental Math, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Tough Stuff, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Training, and How to Stay Christian in College. Other students, meanwhile, were consuming 100 People Who Are Screwing up America, Why Do Men Have Nipples?, and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. The saddest comment came from a student who said, "I can't remember the last time I read a book just for fun."

 A Canticle for Leibowitz book coverParable of the Sower book cover

Seven of the books named in response to the 2007 survey had been recommended on UC Berkeley's most recent Unoffical Summer Reading List for Freshmen: The Ecology of Fear (Mike Davis); The Parable of the Sower (Octavia Butler); Island (Aldous Huxley); A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.); Lord of the Flies (William Golding); Survival in Auschwitz (Primo Levi); and Falling Leaves (Adeline Yen Mah). The theme of that list, by the way, was "Survival!"

Enduring classics and international authors

The three surveys of freshman reading habits were created unequal, to be sure. The 1987 survey, like the '97 version, was conducted simply by distributing sheets of paper to freshman English classes. (In 1987, 438 students responded; in 1997, 682.)

San Francisco author Danielle Steel ranked high in 1987 — but completely disappeared from the 2007 list. Sidney Sheldon, big in the 1987 survey, was mentioned just twice in 2007.

One take-away message from this trio of surveys is that classics endure. In fact, many authors and titles have appeared all three times. Jane Austen is one such author. Both 1987 and 1997 saw six mentions of Austen books; in 2007, there were 37 mentions. In 1987, Kurt Vonnegut got eight mentions; in 1997 there were 6; in 2007, 32.

In 1987, Stephen King was King of the list, with 24 reporting they had read
a King book. But Alice Walker's The Color Purple was the single most popular book, with 17 mentions. Twenty years later, in 2007, King slipped below the top 10, though he still earned 19 mentions. San Francisco's own Danielle Steel also ranked high in 1987 — but completely disappeared from the 2007 list. Sidney Sheldon, also big in '87, was mentioned just twice in 2007.

In 1997, Amy Tan was the most read author, with 18 mentions for three different works, while the most popular single book was Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (8 readers).

 The Catcher in the Rye book coverCrime and Punishment book cover

Each time the survey has been conducted, Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among others, have held their own. But in neither of the first two surveys did a single author achieve the high percentage that Rowling did in the 21st century.

One observable change, in 2007, is the increased ethnic and cultural (and even linguistic) diversity of the books and authors on the list. Several students named books written in Spanish and Chinese. Many others indicated they had read books by (among others) Indian, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Mexican, African, and African American authors — such as The Space Between Us (Thrity Umrigar); The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi (Tanigawa Nagaru); The Dying Ground (Nichele Tramble); Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (Luis Rodriguez); First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (Loung Ung).

And let's not leave out novelist and political philosopher Ayn Rand, proponent of individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, whose various books earned 15 mentions in 1987, 11 in 1997, and 25 in 2007.

What conclusions can we draw from these admittedly unscientific surveys? Student do manage to read for enjoyment, and they read widely. Best seller lists (and Oprah?) influence their reading, but clearly they have strong wills of their own. Can we explain Madame Bovary, Our Man in Havana, All Quiet on the Western Front, Great Expectations, and The Screwtape Letters as recreational reading among college students? No, but we can be thankful.

For the results of the fall 2007 survey, see the Survey of New Students website. Questions 42 and 42a pertain to recent reading.