“Atlas Shrugged” Kicks the Ass of “Fight Club”

by Scott McLemee on January 30, 2008

The website Books That Make You Dumb seems designed to bring out the scolds among us. The methodology is dubious (use Facebook to determine the ten most popular books among students at various colleges and universities, then organize this data according to average SAT scores for each institution) and there is no reason to suppose the books cause stupidity, rather than serving to diagnoise a preexisting condition.

The creator of the site, Virgil Griffith, acknowledges the problems. “I’m aware correlation [does not equal] causation,” he says. “The results are awesome regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”

Gripe if you must, but diverting the chart certainly is. The Book of Mormon falls right in the middle. There is probably a Mitt Romney joke to be plucked from this, like over-ripe and low-hanging fruit. Verily I say unto you, have a look. (via Librarian.net)

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01.30.08 at 9:38 pm

{ 58 comments }

1

David in NY 01.30.08 at 3:30 pm

Well, I have nothing to say since the chart does not seem to support any of my already-formed prejudices.

2

Righteous Bubba 01.30.08 at 3:35 pm

Personally I like that there Shakespeare book. Hyup.

3

Tom 01.30.08 at 3:38 pm

I have a feeling this indicates more what students at various schools feel will make them seem cool than what they actually enjoy reading. Certain type of students will say “Atlas Shrugged” is their favorite book because it appears intellectually adventurous, while another will say “The Da Vinci Code” because that’s all they’re comfortable with admitting to have read recently. Of course “Lolita” and “100 Years of Solitude” are at the top…they’re “smart” books that “smart” kids want their friends to know they’ve read. (I won’t try to guess how many of these books were actually read by the students who claim to love them. “Harry Potter” of course, but “Crime and Punishment?”)

4

Jeff 01.30.08 at 3:56 pm

Conspicuous in their absence:

Heinlein
Robert Anton Wilson

5

r@d@r 01.30.08 at 3:56 pm

“ender’s game” makes you smarter than “dune”? and people who read “fahrenheit 451″ are dumber than people who don’t read at all? oh puhleez.

this is a potentially funny joke that falls dreadfully short on delivery.

good to see “purpose driven life” where it belongs though.

6

David in NY 01.30.08 at 4:25 pm

I generally don’t find the chart interesting, but would be interested in a further question. Is there any of the books on the left side (the “dumber” side) that is significantly more challenging reading than the others? (You’d have to evaluate the books by some objective measure — maybe one of those evaluators of vocabulary or complexity of syntax or whatever.) That might give a clue about how to get those who have probably less interest in reading to read more challenging stuff.

7

lemuel pitkin 01.30.08 at 4:45 pm

It’s kind of hard to get past the concentration of “African-American” books at the dumb end. Sort of a decisive blow against the whole project in my view….

8

John Emerson 01.30.08 at 5:08 pm

“Freakonomics” and “Atlas Shrugged” at the smart end is a presage of the final collapse of American civilization.

9

JP Stormcrow 01.30.08 at 5:14 pm

My prediction: A similar exercise for movies (it will come I’m sure), would have Fight Club further to the right and Atlas Shrugged further to the left, if it appeared at all (maybe I should wait until it actually comes out, but I’m pretty comfortable with the prediction just on general principle).

10

derek 01.30.08 at 5:26 pm

A book called I Don’t Read was just screwed going into this exercise, wasn’t it?

11

ponte 01.30.08 at 5:30 pm

That website made me dumber.

12

Nick 01.30.08 at 5:33 pm

One can only deplore the absence of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull from the list – and speculate as to where it might lie in the distribution . . .

13

Bloix 01.30.08 at 5:49 pm

What interests me is how conventional the books are. When I was in school many years ago, there was a definite sense of an alternative literature. Trout Fishing in America. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Golden Notebook. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Catch-22. Slaughterhouse Five. This has nothing to do with how smart or good or lasting the books were. There was a literary culture on campus that was not the NYT book review culture.

14

karan 01.30.08 at 6:06 pm

There’s a fairly simple explanation for F 451 and similar cases – these are books that all kids read in high school. Now, since they do feel obligated to put down something in their profile, the kids who do not read (and have a correspondingly low SAT score/go to a worse off college) will put down the few books that they have had exposure to in their life – their highschool reading list. This skews the results by making some classics appear the choice of “the masses”. In general, the more obscure the book, the higher the chance that it was read by its fan on their own – making that correlation stronger.

Then there is, of course, the glaring problem of comparing top 10 books at small schools to the same at large ones (besides the other problem that half of students at large universities are there for science and math, and therefore their exposure to reading is also for the most part limited to what they were forced to learn in school)

Bad, bad, bad, poorly designed, unscientific study with so much multicollinearity, heteroskedesticity, and ommited vars to make a grown man weep.

15

nobody 01.30.08 at 6:08 pm

how about “My Pet Goat”, Yale & MBA Harvard..

16

engels 01.30.08 at 6:32 pm

Anyone who reads stuff that isn’t published online is smarter than 99% of people who comment on the internet…

17

abb1 01.30.08 at 6:43 pm

I didn’t realize people still read All Quiet on the Western Front.

18

Martin Bento 01.30.08 at 7:07 pm

So “the Bible” is about 150 points ahead of “the Holy Bible”. I always meant to track down that unholy one.

19

David in NY 01.30.08 at 7:08 pm

I didn’t realize people still read All Quiet on the Western Front.

In high school; and they like it. But some of the others that are clearly high school assignments surprise me a little — like Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, which are not my favorite Dickens, perhaps because I did read them in high school (many years ago).

20

amelia 01.30.08 at 7:32 pm

lemuel @ 7: YES. we’ve gotten from “historically black college” (my guess at the meaning of those correlations) to “dumb” in one easy step.

(come to think of it, though, i’d be pretty interested to read a chart on top ten books by percentile of african american enrollment.)

21

Jacob T. Levy 01.30.08 at 7:47 pm

Lots of the books just seem age-inappropriate to me– favorite books for smart 15-year olds, not 20-year olds whether smart or dumb.

I confess to finding the list more entertaining than I probably should.

22

engels 01.30.08 at 7:47 pm

Is “African-American” usually considered to be a literary genre or only for the purposes of engaging in rather sad little exercises in class-based snobbery like this website?

23

Dave 01.30.08 at 7:57 pm

Surely if the website is ‘class-based snobbery’, then you are defining ‘class’ as ‘SAT score’, which is veeery interesting….

24

engels 01.30.08 at 7:59 pm

(That wasn’t very clear. I’m not saying that the classification “African American literature” is racist, but in the context of the other categories on the site it seems a bit odd…)

25

Barry 01.30.08 at 8:01 pm

Posted by John Emerson:
““Freakonomics” and “Atlas Shrugged” at the smart end is a presage of the final collapse of American civilization.”

I spotted those two. I take their position to be another strong data point in favor of the immediate destruction of the University of Chicago, and the sowing of the ground with salt.

26

engels 01.30.08 at 8:10 pm

#22 Erm, no, that doesn’t follow at all…

27

lemuel pitkin 01.30.08 at 8:13 pm

another strong data point in favor of the immediate destruction of the University of Chicago, and the sowing of the ground with salt.

Hey hey hey, now. You want to give up Tom Frank? And Rick Perlstein? And little ol’ me?

28

alex 01.30.08 at 8:45 pm

Many people don’t know this, but one of the central beliefs of the Mormon faith is “The glory of God is intelligence”. It’s the motto of BYU.

29

Martin James 01.30.08 at 8:48 pm

So college students that list the Book of Mormon as among their 10 favorite books have above average test scores, whereas, those that list the Bible have below average test scores.

However, both Harvard and Yale students listed the Bible in their top 10.

30

thompsaj 01.30.08 at 8:53 pm

On the same site, there’s music that makes you dumb. Unsurprisingly, Indie rock means you’re smart and hip hop and country are dumb. Just like I thought.

31

engels 01.30.08 at 8:54 pm

Hey hey hey, now. You want to give up Tom Frank? And Rick Perlstein? And little ol’ me?

It’d be a pity to lose Perlstein but sometimes tradeoffs have to be made…

32

Luke 01.30.08 at 9:10 pm

Hey, UChicago built the Atom Bomb and Pinochet–clearly, it has surpassed Stanford or Regents University in its contribution to humanity.

If we’re plowing and salting things: 1) God’s Harvard, and possibly God’s Princeton, depending on what one wants to call Regents and Patrick Henry. Or, what the hell, upgrade to Napalm.

33

Luke 01.30.08 at 9:11 pm

Meanwhile, reflecting on my facebook page, none of the books I list are on there, but I went to an East Coast Liberal Arts school, so what do I know….

34

Decline and Fall 01.30.08 at 9:18 pm

RE: the high place of Atlas Shrugged:

I had a conversation about the Rand kids with one of my utors at St. John’s, and his take was that they entered their Freshman year brash and knowing all the answers (of course) but also pre-interested in questions of epistemology, moral philosophy, etc. So they were obnoxious, but more likely to be engaged from the start. By the end of their first year Socrates and Aristotle had shown them that their first “philosophical” love was insubstantial. The high school crush had been replaced.

Which is to say that it’s not surprising that smart teenagers gravitate toward Rand. What would portend the end of civilization would be a demonstration that smart college-educated twentysomethings were still enthralled.

35

Tom Hurka 01.30.08 at 9:35 pm

This is doubtless taking this thing too seriously, but you’ve got to notice that some of the ‘smartest’ books are in the top 10 at only a few universities.

#1 Lolita and #6 Atlas Shrugged are in the top 10 at only 14 universities, while #12 Pride and Prejudice is in the top 10 at 394. That suggests that in the population as a whole Pride and Prejudice is more strongly correlated with ‘smartness’ than either of the other two. (Phew, at least wrt the Rand.)

36

todd. 01.30.08 at 9:36 pm

PS, now Pride and Prejudice is chick lit and Lolita is erotica. I’m glad they cleared that up.

37

CJColucci 01.30.08 at 10:23 pm

Like Martin Bento, #18, I was struck by the different rankings for “The Holy Bible” and “The Bible.” Perhaps those who read this important and difficult text AS or BECAUSE IT IS an important and difficult text are brighter than people who read it because they think it is “holy.”

38

joel hanes 01.30.08 at 10:54 pm

… it’s not surprising that smart teenagers gravitate toward Rand. What would portend the end of civilization would be a demonstration that smart college-educated twentysomethings were still enthralled.

Then civilization has ended. See the entire Usenet archives or comments at any Libertarian web site for details.

39

Decline and Fall 01.30.08 at 11:19 pm

“Then civilization has ended. See the entire Usenet archives or comments at any Libertarian web site for details.”

I don’t generally assume the commenters at Libertarian web sites to be “smart,” to say nothing of “college-educated” or “twentysomething.” The Randians spend a diproportionate amount of time making themselves look disproportionately numerous; even among Libertarians. They’re like 9/11 troofers that way: you’d think they were everywhere to judge by their internet ubiquity.

On the other hand, civilization has seen better days….

40

SG 01.31.08 at 2:17 am

If “The Alchemist” is the smartest “science fiction” book in this collection – and is popular with smarter people than almost all the actual intelligent books – then civilisation is truly doomed. That book is just a “literary” version of “The secret”.

No wonder Cheney thinks the US can make its own reality if this is what smart kids are reading at school…

41

John Emerson 01.31.08 at 2:58 am

Mormons and ex-Mormons have made disproportionate contributions to many areas of scholarship and science. Mormonism is not an anti-intellectual religion, and not a vengeful one (no Hell), and not really theologically crazier than all the others, and extremely charitable and communitarian within the church.

And I have often found Mormons to be pleasant and even jolly. But they’re extremely narrow-minded and conventional, yes.

This message has been brought to you by the Romney For President Committee. Stop John McCain!

42

grewupinthecorridor 01.31.08 at 3:45 am

41- yes they do have hell. they call it “outer darkness”. In attempts at recruiting, they will tell you it is populated by only five or six people; but live in the corridor and tell ‘em that you’re e.g. opposed to attempts to amend the constitution so as to exclude same-sex couples from even lobbying the populace for equal access to marriage and, suddenly, “outer darkness” will sound like a much more populated place.

43

grewupinthecorridor 01.31.08 at 3:47 am

oh, also: and on the “anti-intellectual” score; uh, I dunno. “feminists and intellectuals” are, according to one LDS leader, 2 out the 3 biggest threats to the world. one guess what group constitutes the third…

44

Gus 01.31.08 at 3:56 am

I want to see book reports from those kids on each of the books. I would be willing to guess that at least half of people who claim to have read Marquez haven’t actually read him.

45

Rickm 01.31.08 at 4:37 am

Don’t ignore A Clockwork Orange. Its pretty low on that scale, and from what I remember, with all the jargon, is a fairly dense and inaccessible book. Methinks many dummies who listed the book as their favorite probably did so because they liked the movie, rather than liking the book.

46

Brett 01.31.08 at 5:10 am

I’m amazed at how seriously you all are taking this, much more so than the guy who did the “study”.

As for comment 7, I would guess those results have more to do with cultural bias in the SAT’s than anything else.

As for comment 13, I’m sure college kids are reading all kinds of alternative lit, but if you ask a 1000 of them what their favorite books are, the most common ones will be traditional stuff that a couple hundred of those kids have read.

47

Nick 01.31.08 at 9:11 am

If “The Alchemist” is the smartest “science fiction” book in this collection – and is popular with smarter people than almost all the actual intelligent books – then civilisation is truly doomed. That book is just a “literary” version of “The secret”.
Good grief . . . I thought they meant they were reading Ben Jonson . . .

48

MikeN 01.31.08 at 9:54 am

I’d say that “Atlas Shrugged” is brought to you by the extremely smart computer science/engineering types who otherwise only read Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, combined with the legacy/rich kid Republicans who just know that they’re part of the natural elite.

Actually, probably more the smart wannabees who are trying to get themselves into a lifetime position on wingnut welfare.

49

JP Stormcrow 01.31.08 at 12:29 pm

Actually I think the AnAnalysisThatMakesYouDumb guy has quite the interesting underlying data set, but showing the SAT correlation is way down the list of interesting things you could do with the data (but is not unsurprising in today’s fucked up US News Ranking-permeated environment) I can’t find the raw lists by school, but you can see a lot of it by looking at the individual book data (it seems to not show the books not on the Top 100 overall list.)

A few observations:
How similar the lists actually are across a broad swath of colleges.
As mentioned above how many times a book shows up, period, is more interesting than its “SAT score”.
Where/if the Bible shows up in your list is surely an interesting marker.
Where/if Harry Potter shows up in your list is surely an interesting marker. (The ubiquity of the book, often at the top (it is at Harvard & Princeton), is a testament to something.)
I would like to see the schools ranked by “The Devil Quotient” – basically where Harry Potter is placed relative to the Bible. Max DQ is HP #1, Bible not in top 10, Min DQ is the reverse.
It would be interesting to see the full lists of the few schools with almost none of their top 10 on the top 100. (Amherst was 1, had only Cat’s Cradle, Hendrix only had HP, there might be a few with none on th top 10).
There are a lot more interesting characteristics of colleges to correlate with the lists than SAT score.

50

Martin Wisse 01.31.08 at 1:45 pm

13, bloix: What interests me is how conventional the books are. When I was in school many years ago, there was a definite sense of an alternative literature.

The hippies all morphed into yuppie accountants and their children despise them and have burned all their books.

Or perhaps tripe like Da Da Vinci Code is now mainstream rather than alternative.

51

JP Stormcrow 01.31.08 at 2:30 pm

What interests me is how conventional the books are. When I was in school many years ago, there was a definite sense of an alternative literature. + The hippies all morphed into yuppie accountants

Or perhaps you are both mistakenly combining a variant of the “Big Chill fallacy” (everyone was an alternative/hippie in the relevant time frame) with an incomplete understanding of the principle that “there are more ways of being different than being the same” that governs what type of thing actually shows up on aggregated top 10 list. We might be surprised at the mainstream “tripe” that what would show up from a similar exercise in the ’60s/70s/80/90s.

52

GreatZamfir 01.31.08 at 2:51 pm

In the same vein, I am always surprised when a radio station plays a top whatever from say, 40 years ago. There is alot of rubbish in there, and the classics you expect are rare.

53

Hattie 01.31.08 at 9:48 pm

Ah, class and the classics. Some things never change.

54

quicksand 02.01.08 at 12:07 am

Which is to say that it’s not surprising that smart teenagers gravitate toward Rand. What would portend the end of civilization would be a demonstration that smart college-educated twentysomethings were still enthralled.

And what do the predispositions of thirty-something bloggers for major magazines and almost-mainstream Republican presidential candidates tend to prophesy? I’m almost afraid to ask.

55

SG 02.01.08 at 3:17 am

13,51: it could just be that Bloix gave as examples of the “alternative” novels shit american scratch-a-hippy-get-a-catholic novels like Even Cowgirls get the blues and novels which people read to show how broad-minded they are, but never really understood, like Slaughterhouse 5. I don’t think that’s changed much.

And Pride and Prejudice so is chick lit.

56

a very public sociologist 02.01.08 at 2:09 pm

Wot? No Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly?

57

messy J 02.02.08 at 3:27 am

Why are you folks thinking so hard about this in the first place? The “study” is obviously sloppy and lacks any sense of sound scientific methodology; its supposed conclusions are meaningless.

58

TCO 02.05.08 at 1:59 am

Neat experiment/observation. Very shrewd.

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