NEWS RELEASE, 01/14/98

Do college freshmen read only textbooks? UC Berkeley survey finds students do read for fun, from Amy Tan to Fyodor Dostoyevsky

by Gretchen Kell

BERKELEY -- Are textbooks the only books college freshmen read? Or have surfing the internet and other kinds of entertainment replaced reading books for fun, even in a city known for its countless bookstores?

A new survey of 470 freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley found that students here do read for personal enjoyment and that, like the general public, they prefer pop fiction, with a slight preference for the classics.

"The surprise is that the results aren't very surprising," said Steve Tollefson, a lecturer in UC Berkeley's College Writing Programs and faculty development coordinator in the Student Life-Educational Development Office. Tollefson conducted the unscientific survey as a follow-up to one he did at UC Berkeley 10 years ago.

"I think most people have certain expectations of students -- some probably think that students only read for classes and that if they did read anything, it would be magazines or sports biographies," he said. "On the other hand, I suppose there are those who don't expect college students to be reading Stephen King."

The most popular author with students in UC Berkeley's freshman writing courses was Amy Tan. Eighteen students cited one of her best-selling novels, which include "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Kitchen God's Wife." Tan was followed closely by best-selling authors John Grisham (15 readers ), Michael Crichton (14) and Stephen King (10).

In Tollefson's 1987 survey, students' favorite authors were Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlam, Jean Auel and Stephen King. With the exception of King, said Tollefson, students today "have simply exchanged one set of best sellers for more recent ones."

Receiving six to eight votes apiece this year were Terry MacMillian, Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

"I like the fact that if students are reading pop fiction," said Tollefson, "they're reading MacMillian instead of Steele."

The single most popular book that was not a best seller was Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Her novel "Atlas Shrugged" also was a favorite.

This came as no surprise to Tollefson.

"Ten years ago, about the same percentage of students listed books by Rand," he said. " I think there's something in her books that is very appealing to students who are just forming their ideas about the world. My only solace is that I think they get smarter here at Berkeley and outgrow her."

In 1987, "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker was the book cited most often by freshmen surveyed, and Stephen King was mentioned more than any other author. Consistent with freshmen from a decade ago, who gave 11 votes to "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, seven out of the 470 students surveyed this year recently had read the same book.

Some 344 different books were listed by students. Among the more unusual listings was a MacIntosh computer programming book and a drafting textbook.

The survey, which did not specify fiction or non-fiction, also included Randy Shilts' "And The Band Played On," a biography of Frida Kahlo and several well-known children's books. "I assume the children's books were re-readings," said Tollefson. "But then again, they're great books, so why not?"

The purpose of the survey was curiosity on the part of Tollefson, who wanted to know whether students' reading habits had changed in the past 10 years.

"Although some of the titles and authors have changed," he said, "there is a remarkable consistency -- a mix of popular fiction and classics with a touch of non-fiction. And many of the same books listed this year were also chosen in 1987.

"Getting in the habit of reading is the most important thing. I always want students to read only what I personally consider the best, of course, but, in truth, I'm just happy they're reading."

Each year, Tollefson and Ellen Meltzer, head of the teaching library at UC Berkeley, also compile a summer reading list for incoming freshmen, an unofficial list of recommendations from faculty, staff and students.

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