Living dead: What the Dickens are college students reading?, The

living dead: What the Dickens are college students reading?, The

Swanson, Renee

There’s a dirty little secret in the multicultural halls of American universities: dead white males are alive and well. Although many contemporary African-American, Latin, and Asian authors are being introduced, a close look at college reading lists and publishers’ best sellers reveals that classics remain an essential part of the English curriculum at most schools and a top choice for book buyers.

Auburn University, Harvard University, Mt. Holyoke College, Oral Roberts University, and Smith College are just a few of the hundreds of colleges where Shakespeare, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Homer still are required reading. In 1991, Reading Lists for College-Bound Students was published as the definitive answer to what books are most recommended by America’s top colleges–and the answer was classics.

What are the classic texts that remain popular today? Thomas J. Slakey, dean of St. John’s College, a school whose curriculum is organized around the study of classic texts, says that the so-called great books are “those texts that over time have proved best at forcing their readers to rethink fundamental questions, and at helping them understand themselves and the world around them.” Adam Bellow, senior editor of Macmillan Free Press, says that American classics like Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter are the “mental furniture ” of American life. They “convey a sense of American civilization in its formative stages and are of great moral and literary importance,” says Mr. Bellow.

Classics appeal to Americans of all ages and have become the mainstay of the publishing business. Many publishing houses, such as Viking Penguin, W. W. Norton, and Random House, are responding to the high demand for classics by publishing new collections of older titles. W. W. Norton, for example, will be adding Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and selected essays of John Locke to its line of Critical Editions in spring 1994. Also at W. W. Norton, such popular titles as Kate Chopin’s Awakening and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are being released in their second and third editions. At Reader’s Digest, the World’s Best Reading Series, which is composed solely of classics, is in its 10th year of publication and still gaining in popularity.


The Library of America, created in 1979 with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is dedicated solely to publishing America’s greatest writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Herman Melville, Jack London, Richard Wright, and Flannery O’Connor. Hanna Berkovitch, editor in chief of Library of America, says that in choosing classic American titles, she looks for “an established reputation, a work that has stood the test of time.” And she only publishes authors who are dead. Sixty-seven titles have been published in the series so far, and the top-selling authors include Abraham Lincoln, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. There is a literal mass market for classics: Flannery O’Connor: Collected Writings topped the Chicago Tribune local best-seller list in fall 1988, and Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings has over 100,000 copies in print.

Despite the robust popular sales of the classics, many insist that multicultural titles represent the wave of the future. Gary Carey, editor of Cliffs Notes–the company that produces the yellow-and-black study guides hidden in student book bags–says that “education is going multicultural everywhere.” Carey believes that the new multicultural titles soon will move into the top 100-selling titles, displacing many classic texts.

So far, however, the 10 top-selling titles at Cliffs Notes are all classics. The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, and Macbeth have been the three best-selling titles since Cliffs Notes began in 1958. The contemporary multicultural titles are at the bottom of the sales list. (See table of top-selling Cliffs Notes titles.)


Containing poetry, history, humor, theology, and every theme from grand infidelity to quiet heroism–the Bible is probably the only book that suits nearly everyone. According to a survey of Doubleday’s Book-of-the-Month Club members, the Bible is the book that has most influenced readers’ lives. Currently published in over 3,000 editions in the United States, the Bible is undoubtedly the all-time best-selling book. The Christian Booksellers Association estimates that over 900 million copies of the King James version alone have appeared since its first printing in 1611. Thomas Nelson Inc., one of the largest publishers of Bibles in the United States, distributed six-and-a-half million Bibles and scriptures in 1992. If Bible sales were counted with the rest of the national best sellers, John Grisham or Michael Crichton would have some real competition. (See table of Doubleday’s “25 books that shaped readers’ lives.”)

Classic texts such as these continue to be popular for the same reasons that they seem to be eternally relevant: they speak to us in a way that forever changes the way we look at our lives. When William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950, he said: “The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man. It can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”


A List From The Center for the Book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin The Autobiography of Malcolm X The Bible The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell The Gulag Archipeligo, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Hiroshima, by John Hersey How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie I, Claudius, by Robert Graves Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupery The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien 1984, by George Orwell Roots, by Alex Haley The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee Treasure Island, by Robert Louise Stevenson Walden, by Henry David Thoreau War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy


1. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne 2. Macbeth, William Shakespeare 3. Hamlet, William Shakespeare 4. The Odyssey, Homer 5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain 6. Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer 7. The Iliad, Homer 8. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee 9. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens 10. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald 11. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte 12. Lord of the Flies, William Golding 13. The Crucible, Arthur Miller 14. Othello, William Shakespeare 15. Oedipus Trilogy, Sophocles 16. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens 17. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck 18. Beowulf 19. Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare 20. King Lear, William Shakespeare 21. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte 22. Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare 23. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger 24. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen 25. The Republic, Plato

Source: Survey of Doubleday Book-of-the-Month Club and U.S. Library of Congress

RENEE SWANSON is completing her senior year at the College of the Holy Cross.

Copyright Heritage Foundation Winter 1994

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