The Book Question: Surprises and Meanings

by Sophie Blumert

What do Dr. Seuss, Harper Lee, and Plato have in common? These authors, though wildly different from each other, were most frequently mentioned when we asked participants to recommend books and to explain their choice. The answers yielded some of the most varied—and confusing—data from every constituency group in our study. While Dr. Seuss (more specifically, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!) was the top recommendation across all participants, and each constituency group mentioned him at least once, this response only makes up 2% of the entire sample of titles and authors. And Plato? Only 1%.


In our national study of higher education, we asked our 2000 respondents to answer the following question: What is one book you would recommend to a graduating senior before they leave college? We thought this question would be an interesting method to understand the cumulative effects of college and to see whether the books recommended would reflect academic aspirations. We hoped that the books would be intellectually rigorous and that they would be ones that would repay revisiting, such as the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Toni Morrison, or the theories of Karl Marx. In short, we had “Great Expectations.”

In what follows, we describe what we found, what we did not find, and what we think it means.

An Initial Surprise: Reactions

Our first surprise: the reaction to this question. Our impression was that many participants, from multiple constituency groups, felt like they were being put on the spot. Several participants quipped that this was a tough question, but instead of relishing in the opportunity to think about books, participants appeared vulnerable and uneasy as they racked their brains—and sometimes their bookshelves—for a suggestion. Indeed, in some cases when participants struggled, we offered them the chance to recommend something other than a book (such as a film) or even just a message that they would like students to take with them. Eventually, most participants managed to suggest a specific title; of those who were asked this question, only 4% recommended something other than a book, and just 14% could not come up with any response at all. 

It is possible that participants had different interpretations of our question, which may have led to a wide variety of book recommendations. For example, some participants seemed to treat the question as an opportunity to think about what might be necessary reading for college students; others viewed it as a way to inspire or help students as they moved into the next phase of their life; and finally, many decided to think about their own favorite book or a book they had read most recently. Interpretation may partially account for the large number of Dr. Seuss recommendations and self-help/personal development books (the most frequent genre, at 21%), so further analysis was needed to better understand different constituencies’ recommendations.

An Underwhelming Surprise: Titles & Authors

The second surprise came from our analysis of titles, namely, the “non-college” suggestions. For instance, a large number of books fell into two distinct groups: high school books and self-help books. Approximately 14% of all titles recommended across constituency groups could easily be considered typical high school reading (e.g. The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, etc.). While first-year students (understandably) recommended these books most frequently (17%), other participants were not far off—graduating students and young alumni suggested high school books 12% of the time; parents, trustees, and faculty 13%; and administrators 15%. While these books may be considered “classics,” it still is surprising—and maybe even disheartening—that a number of participants, students and adults alike, suggested titles that don’t necessarily require a college education to read and understand.

But even more popular than high school books were the aforementioned “self-help/personal development” books that one might pick up on a whim. This was an exceedingly popular genre for almost every constituency group, a fifth of all title suggestions. We were surprised even further by the high number of books about professional success, rather than introspection and self-reflection (e.g. How to Win Friends and Influence People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, etc.) It is possible that the framing of the question led participants to believe that these books could be helpful to students as they go out into the world; however, there are plenty of books in college-level curricula that get at the same meaning (or go even deeper). Put bluntly, and unapologetically, we were disappointed by this finding.

A Final Surprise: The Emergence of Social Issues

One noteworthy trend that emerged from the book titles was the emphasis on social issues. Out of all of the various book title and author suggestions across all constituency groups, nearly half (47%) address content explicitly related to race, gender, politics, and more. This aligns well with our findings about social issues more broadly. All participants organically raised these topics across the transcript in high frequencies, so it is not entirely unexpected that it appeared during this question as well. It also provides us with a possible explanation for the surprising presence of high school books. For example, texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and 1984 are often a student’s first introduction to powerful stories about social issues that are still relevant decades after publication.

However, within this context, we found that only 7% of these titles were typically college-level reading (and the number of total college books suggested was quite low). This presented us with an interesting puzzle: students were eager to read books that address social issues, and adults readily recommended them, but the majority of titles came from a high school reading list. Clearly, high school should not be the only exposure that students have to this type of literary content. Knowing that these are salient issues for college students, higher education has the unique opportunity to help them navigate these complex issues through books.

Beyond Surprise: The Importance of Meaning

While book titles and authors gave us insight into just how much variety there was in terms of genre and reading level, the titles didn’t tell us enough about why participants offered them in the first place. Because we were interested in how people think (not just what people think), we analyzed this question to help us determine overall the amount of “higher education capital” (HEDCAP) displayed, at the time of the interview. The title wasn’t nearly enough to determine how deeply participants thought about books; we wanted to understand the extent to which students could clearly articulate a substantive takeaway. The HEDCAP measure allowed us to evaluate the rationale for the book, not just the title.  

Consider two students:

The first student not only offered a “weighty” title, but clearly explained their reasoning for naming this book as a recommendation: Allegory of the Cave by Plato… because that is a book that, like, really taught me about, like, learning how people learn. Like it’s, it’s about, basically like … It’s a very hard thing to explain. It’s like there’s a cave- And, like, people are in the cave and they’re trying to … Like some people see the light.  Some people, some people only see the shadow of the light. Some people actually see, like, what’s … like see the hole where it’s shining from and then some people, actually, can be able to come out of, of the cave. So it’s like yeah, people see different perspectives of this light.  And the reason why is because of where they’re positioned in, like, the cave and outs- It’s like … Yeah, I think that that was an interesting book to, to learn becau- … I mean to read because it was like, it showed that not everyone is at the same stage as you are when it comes to learning certain things.

On the other hand, the second student offered a title that may seem “impressive” on the surface, but the student did not demonstrate that they took anything substantive away from it: One book. Yeah. Uh, I, oh, I don’t know. (laughter) it’s just kind of, I’m looking at my books right now. I guess it kind of depends on who that person is. I don’t know if there’s one, one general book… to be honest, I have not read a lot of books besides (laughter) science textbooks, but, um, well…  I mean, well, I read, uh, like, uh, earlier this year I took a class on Dante’s Divine Comedy and …    Mmm.    … that one was interesting I guess. You know, I, it’s kind of an interesting way to think about things, um, an interesting way to … there’s some interesting philosophical ideas in that book and … I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know if it would, you know, really, you know, really, really teach anyone anything, but, you know, I enjoy-, I enjoyed reading it and it was also an interesting perspective, I guess.

It is important to underscore that though we appreciate significant books, we wanted to understand the messages that participants wanted to impart on graduating students. If those important messages came from children’s books, we did not discount these responses in any way. For example, one student gave a thoughtful answer about a children’s book:

Perloo the Bold by Avi… So, it’s actually my favorite book. What’s interesting about the book is you can read it in fourth grade, and that’s when I read it. I mean, it’s kind of a children’s book, but the sort of issues, the sort of thinking that you can develop by reading it when you’re older, multiple times. I think it’s sort of phenomenal that it can come from the tale of… It’s about a rabbit, an anthropomorphized rabbit, and these foxes that are clashing clans. But, what’s interesting is that they both… Both cultures treat this certain bird as, sort of, their deity because of a lot of moral guidance. And at the end of the book, what you realize is there’s a lot of similarities between how both of these cultures think and the clash, itself, is sort of… It’s silly. It came about for historical reasons and it’s very counterproductive. They’re both so focused on fighting each other that they don’t realize their innate ability to cooperate. So, I think that story, kind of, speaks to, I guess, the empathy that we have to have for a lot of other people. The fact that we have to keep an open mind and have a better perspective about not just like what might be important to us but what other people are thinking, what might be important to other people. Understanding, not just what motivates other people, but also what interests other people. I mean, it also speaks to how people can also be selfish. Their characters were very self-motivated and driven but they’re very selfish. And so, I think just understanding how humans interact within society, I think it’s an excellent book for that. It’s, sort of, like [a] caricature of all the humans’ brains, sort of, embodied into these various animals. So, I’d say it’s my favorite book. Yeah.   

While one does not have to go to college to read children’s literature, it is likely that a college education is what provided students with the opportunity to think critically about these texts and the messages they send.


Based on the 1306 titles we tracked across 2000 participants, one might conclude that college is not doing a particularly good job of making the reading of serious texts central to the academic experience. In fact, high school seems to be more impactful.

In an ideal world, we want students to be reading broadly and willingly, but this does not happen without careful consideration about the type of content to which students are drawn. With this in mind, we suggest that faculty need to spend more time connecting the meaning of classic texts to issues of the 21st century. Why is John Stuart Mill relevant to the impeachment hearings? How did W.E.B. Du Bois pinpoint the defining issue of the 20th century, and how does it connect with issues today? In addition to these texts, consider also including some contemporary (but still rigorous) books that appropriately complement these older works. By drawing from the past and the present, and making clear the relevance of important texts, it is possible for students to have an intellectually stimulating and exciting experience through reading beyond high school.

© 2020 Sophie Blumert

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