What're They Reading on College Campuses?

May 29, 2011

A piece of advice to would-be authors: If you want your books to appeal to the college crowd, aim low.

For the past decade, the novels that have dominated The Chronicle of Higher Education's campus best-sellers list have been those geared for adolescents. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, and, most recently, Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy have been the books to beat.

By contrast, when The Chronicle ran its first monthly survey of college bookstores, 40 years ago, the No. 1 book was written by a classics professor at Yale University.

But hold off on the self-congratulations, baby boomers.

That author was Erich Segal, and his 1970 book was Love Story, a terminal-illness tear-jerker that was already being made into a movie when the producers asked Segal to rework his screenplay as a romance novel that would be released ahead of the film. The book would go on to dominate the year's best-seller lists, and the movie would receive seven Oscar nominations and win one Academy Award, for Francis Lai's original score.

In a front-page article accompanying the fledgling list, The Chronicle's Malcolm G. Scully reported that the top-selling book for the preceding five years—at the 28 campus bookstores responding to a survey, anyhow—was Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, published in 1923. The poet Rod McKuen's Listen to the Warm was No. 2 for the same period.

Bookstores abounded during that era, and it was not a stretch to suggest that the titles being sold by a college's bookstore were also the ones being read on the campus. Nowadays, however, brick-and-mortar bookstores are fewer, and it is not uncommon for the campus store to serve as the primary bookseller for the town that surrounds it. When the results from individual colleges are being averaged with those from 35 other campus bookstores (as The Chronicle does each month), the picture becomes even hazier. Finally, the prevalence of online retailers and e-book readers complicates any effort to determine what college students and their professors are reading.

Often the most interesting aspect of preparing The Chronicle's monthly survey is what we find out about how individual college campuses respond to external and internal events. In August 2006, for example, a month before the Dalai Lama was to visit the University at Buffalo, all but two of the top-10 sellers in the campus bookstore were works about Buddhism, and all but four had been written by the spiritual leader himself.

And in February 2010, the month after Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, the top-10 list at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was quickly filled with earnest titles like Mountains Beyond Mountains, Creating a World Without Poverty, and, ahem, Three Cups of Tea.

"You can see the effect of the earthquake" on campus reading habits, Erica Eisdorfer, manager of North Carolina's Bull's Head Bookshop, said at the time.

Yet when the lists are averaged together, the banal tastes of the mass market obliterate such nuances. The published results become almost indistinguishable from mainstream best-seller tallies.

Remarking on the popularity and durability of Ms. Meyer's Twilight books on the campus lists of 2009, Ron Charles, a senior editor at The Washington Post's Book World, lamented that "the only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment."

And this past March, a Chronicle reader writing under the pseudonym "geochaucer" had a similar comment: "As the cool of college reading seems to have disappeared, maybe it's time for The Chronicle to retire this feature."

That seemed a step too far to Chronicle editors, so we have decided merely to alter it.

While we acknowledge that aggregating sales results from dozens of campus bookstores gives an imprecise picture of what students and scholars are reading en masse, we learn a great deal about the character of campuses by looking at their individual lists. Beginning with this issue, we will instead run a list from one bookstore per month. In a way, the change will be a return to a past tradition; in the early days of the college best-seller list, The Chronicle ran a sampling of individual campuses' lists in addition to the aggregated list.

We invite bookstore managers to e-mail their monthly results to us at, along with notes explaining why certain books are popular on their campus at a given time. We will select one to feature. Priority will be given to lists that best demonstrate colleges' diverse reading tastes or that seem particularly attuned to the cultural zeitgeist. Please include an e-mail address and telephone number.

Our list for April comes from Bill Keister, at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, a longtime contributor to our feature. Mr. Keister notes that the author of Suits, the No. 4 book, recently spoke on the campus.

What They're Reading at ... Penn State

1. Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen

2. Heaven Is for Real
by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

3. Bossypants
by Tina Fey

4. Suits: A Woman on Wall Street
by Nina Godiwalla

5. The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

6. Something Borrowed
by Emily Giffin

7. The Happiness Project
by Gretchen Craft Rubin

8. This Is a Book
by Demetri Martin

9. 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth
by Matthew Inman and

10. The Big Short
by Michael Lewis