Asking people about their reading habits is only slightly less dicey than asking them to tell you how much money they make or how often they have sex. While choosing books may seem less personal than those other two activities, it's actually pretty similar: what one says about one's behavior is complicated, revealing and often inflated to impress.
In other words, sometimes people lie.
At first, I thought that was the problem with a recent Harris poll that queried just over 2500 Americans about their favorite books. The winner by a landslide: the Bible. The #2 choice: Gone with the Wind. Really? I thought. That seems pretty knee-jerk, pretty obvious, not completely believable.
Others were skeptical too, particularly a guy named Gary Baddeley who runs Disinformation.com. But unlike me, Baddeley was less worried that people were fibbing than who the Harris poll's supposed “readers” were in the first place. “Basically, I was questioning whether or not the people that Harris surveyed really read much at all,” he told us in an e-mail, because the choices were so different from the ones he suspected his “universe” of contacts would choose. And so he surveyed his MySpace friends and got more than 1,000 responses. The results: nary a Rhett Butler on the fiction list, which ranged from George Orwell's 1984 to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The Bible did turn up on nonfiction, but all the way down at #7, below The God Delusion (#3) and slightly above Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.
Clearly, Baddeley's group was demographically different from Harris's: to judge from some of their choices—Aldous Huxley, Hunter Thompson and Ishmael, featuring Daniel Quinn's philosopher/gorilla—the disinformation.com crowd is probably younger, more Webby and male. (Baddeley says the one distinguishing feature of his group is that they've had more education than the general population.) But what I found even more interesting was how Baddeley's folk favored backlist over books du jour—Baddeley was skeptical and a little horrified, as was I, that such recent books-of-the moment as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons made the Harris poll. Interesting, too, that Baddeley's group at least nodded toward books in translation—Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra—while Harris's stuck pretty close to home turf.
What this all means: obviously, tastes vary, and even readers who share a language and a long history have wildly different tastes when it comes to literature. Consider, for example, two recent bestseller lists, one PW's and one from our U.K. crony, Publishing News. The top-seller at Bertrams in the U.K. for the week of July 4 (as reported by PN) was something called A History of Modern Britain; here, even as July 4 approached, no such heavy-going title showed up anywhere.
What nonfiction did Americans like best last week? That would be David Sedaris's When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which one agent opined might be “too American” for foreign (i.e. British) tastes. To which I say, in perfect Yank: vive la difference.
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