America’s most popular book

A recent Harris Poll asked 2,500 adults about their favorite book. It should come as no surprise that people’s number one favorite book is the Bible. Second favorite book seems to vary by demographic, but in the top 10 were J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephen King’s The Stand, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The poll asked people about their literary pursuits, and there are a number of fascinating things about this list.

As it said, it comes as no surprise that the Bible finished first. I can think of a number of reasons for this: (1) it is by far the most widely printed book available; (2) it is freely available to just about anyone; (3) many people who chose the Bible as their favorite book probably would have chosen another book, but would have felt a certain amount of guilt in doing so because of their upbringing.

What is more interesting is that American’s “literary” pursuits appears to made up entirely of fiction. But not all literature is made up of fiction. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “literature” as “the body of written works of a language, period or culture.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general.”

While one of the greatest works in the English language (the Bible) tops the list almost more or less by default, no other true classic is to be found on the list. Shakespeare is missing entirely. Gone from the list are the Greek tragedies of Sophocles. And what about Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Or Cervantes Don Quixote? Or dozens of other books that have all been considered literature in past generations?

In fact, it is with fascination that I would bet that between thousands of books President Thomas Jefferson read in his lifetime, and the books our leaders read today, only one, the Bible, remains in common. (In fact, I’d guess that few of our leaders can come close to the true “literary” self-education Jefferson gave himself. But these are different times.)

I am not trying to make any kind of statement about the quality of the books that appear on the list. (In fact, I’m just glad Americans are still reading. One wonders sometimes about these things.) What I find interesting is the social context into which reading lists can be placed. It says volumes about a culture what they collectively read. (As it does, what they watch on television.) Thirty years ago, the list would have been very different, although I’m certain that the Bible would still have been number one on the list, as it would have been 210 years ago when Jefferson was still in office.

I do find it interesting that American’s interpreted (or were guided to believe) that literature excludes non-fiction. Even with social changes that have taken place over the decades, I would expected to have seen some non-fiction books on the list. Maybe not Gibbons (although he seems the most likely candidate), but someone. Einstein was popular in his day. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was also popular. I wonder what the number one non-fiction book would have been if it had been specifically asked for. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, perhaps? Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville? I’m pretty sure I could make a good guess.

I bet it would be the Bible.