Are America’s Favorite Books Just Our Favorite Movies?

Last March, 2,234 U.S. adults surveyed online in a Harris Poll were asked to list their ten favorite books. The results give us some insight into our reading habits, but are they also telling us something about our movie-viewing habits?

This year, just as in 2008 when the Harris Poll last asked this question of other respondents, the number one book is – the envelope, please – The Bible, unsurprisingly a deeply imbedded influence on our national nature.

The number two preference once again is Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-and-Reconstruction drama Gone with the Wind, published in 1936. The book was a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the classic 1939 movie adaptation brought Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler to life in iconic style. An argument could even be made that, for better or worse, it is our Great American Novel. Its mark on our cultural consciousness apparently runs deep.

Or at least it does among women, who seem to be driving that novel’s enduring popularity (the poll also broke down the book list demographically, racially, geographically, and politically). Men, on the other hand, preferred J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series at number two (it is fourth overall, below J.K. Rowling’s astonishingly successful Harry Potter series). The presence of both series suggests a predilection among Americans for good-versus-evil fantasy epics. One has to wonder to what degree the blockbuster movie franchises (both begun in 2001) were responsible for the books’ appearance on the list both times.

One might wonder too if Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy 2013 movie remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby helped that novel climb onto the list (in last place) this year. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which moved up from seventh to fifth since 2008, also may owe its presence partly to a beloved classic film version starring Gregory Peck. And as I suggested above, Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable are practically synonymous with Gone with the Wind. Does this mean that our favorite books are actually just our favorite movies?

But popular film adaptations don’t explain the presence of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which moved up three spots to number seven. That coming-of-age classic has never yet made it to the big screen due to the late, reclusive Salinger’s reluctance to allow the book to be Hollywoodized. They also don’t explain the other titles new to the list this year: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (sixth), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (eighth), and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (ninth). All three have been adapted to film, but not in recent years, and none had the popular or cultural impact of the movie versions of the other books. The films no doubt drove new readers to the books, but it’s less convincing to argue that they had anything to do with earning the books their place on the list.

If Hollywood adaptations are shaping our reading preferences, one might expect to see, say, The Hunger Games or Twilight trilogies on the list the next time around. Of course, those books were already insanely popular before Jennifer Lawrence and Kristen Stewart starred in big-screen versions, but will they prove to be endearing favorites? Time will tell.

Literary snobs (and I once was one) shake their heads over the fact that the list includes a few critically disdained titles (Rowling’s work in particular seems to set their teeth on edge). They point to it as a sign of American Philistinism. But we’re talking about favorite books, not best books. Favorites are not necessarily top-rated critically and artistically, but are personally meaningful to us in some compelling way that may have nothing to do with literary quality. My favorite, for example, is Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. That doesn’t mean I also don’t also appreciate, say, T.S. Eliot.

It may be comforting to the snobs to know that last time, Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame held two spots on the list, and Stephen King another. This time the list features even more classics, with not a 50 Shades of Grey to be found. Maybe Americans aren’t dumbing down after all.

 Favorite Books (all adults) 2008 2014
The Bible

1

1

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

2

2

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

4

3

The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien

3

4

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

7

5

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

*

6

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

10

7

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

*

8

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

*

9

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

*

10

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