Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Literary or Religious Pursuits?

Yesterday, Reuters ran one of those stories (reported by Julie Mollins) that seems to surface with depressing frequency:

When it comes to literary pursuits in the United States most people agree on at least one thing -- the most popular book is the Bible, according to a new survey.

It came in first in a Harris Poll of nearly 2,513 adults but the second choice in the survey was not as clear cut.

"While the Bible is number one among each of the different demographic groups, there is a large difference in the number two favorite book," Harris said in a statement announcing the results.

As one who takes my own reading habits very seriously, I tend to chafe when I encounter a phrase like "literary pursuits" that is being used improperly, if not downright deceptively; and, in this case, if there is deception lurking in the subtext of this report, it would probably have a lot to do with that ongoing rhetoric over whether or not America is a "Christian nation." My guess is that Harris never bothered to determine how many of those 2513 adults polled were conscious of which edition of "The Bible" they read, regardless of whether or not it was their first choice. For example most Jewish editions do not include the New Testament (no surprise); and, unless I am mistaken, neither King James nor the Revised Standard Version includes "The Apocrypha." The (Catholic) "Jerusalem Bible," on the other hand, includes all of the above and includes J. R. R. Tolkien in its editorial board! I include this latter observation in the interest of some of the second choices that surfaced in the poll:

Men chose J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and women selected Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" as their second-favorite book, according to the online poll.

Is this point worth making? I think that, for polling purposes, it may demonstrate a latent "category error," which confuses "book" and "religious artifact" (trying to use the most neutral anthropology-speak that will serve my purpose). Where religious belief is involved, reading about Bilbo Baggins or Scarlett O'Hara is really not the same activity as reading about Abraham or Jesus. Those two activities only merge into a common category when one pursues the latter as "literature," which I doubt that many (any?) of the poll participants do. Indeed, the rather muddled results beyond "first place" should be taken as a sign that this poll says more about religious habits than it says about reading habits; and, if Harris had taken the trouble to tease out which editions were being read among the adults in its sample space, my guess is that their results would have served the purposes of those most determined to view our country as a "Christian nation." So is the Harris organization willing to disclose what motivated them to conduct this poll; and, under the assumption that it was not a matter of internal curiosity, who financed the undertaking?

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