I once asked a student, "Did you read 'The Canterbury Tales' last year?"
"Well," he said, "it was assigned."
That distinction between what's assigned and what's read bedevils English teachers everywhere. And it resembles a quandary faced by observers of popular culture: We can determine which books are selling, but how can we tell which books are being read? Consider, for instance, the number of giant political biographies that fathers received with feigned enthusiasm last Sunday. Surely, a fair number of these will be placed with pride next to those pristine copies of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."
This month, Library Journal has devised a survey of what Americans might actually be reading. Their new "bestsellers" list records the most borrowed and requested books at hundreds of public libraries - from a bookmobile in rural Washington State to branch libraries in New York City.
Of course, like any list, this one needs to be considered with a few caveats. Well-intentioned people may be checking out books that they never actually get around to reading. And some titles may be popular for decades without garnering enough requests to beat out the books that spike in popularity each month.
Also, everybody knows that some books are the kind that people want to keep rather than borrow. Consider, for instance, Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life." The inspirational blockbuster has been a staple of the nonfiction bestseller list for the past 47 weeks, but it doesn't register on the Library Journal list.
Still, 65 percent of Americans use the nation's 16,000 libraries, and those libraries spend almost $2 billion on books each year, about a fifth of the total market. So, this is definitely a list worth checking out.
See the list.
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