Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Taste vs. Enjoyment


By accident, books on my nightstand fall into two piles: those which I should read and those which I want to read. In my current situation, coursework determines my should pile. The want pile consists of, well, books I read even though no one is making me. My haphazard nightstand organization is not meant to defend the divisions between high art and low culture—what gets counted as Literature with a capital L and what’s categorized as trash reflects hierarchies of race, class, gender, and nationality. My piles of books merely echo a more general conversation about the canon, one that is particularly active in English courses

I was curious how the people around me perceived popular novels. Inspired by New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, I wanted to visualize the taste versus enjoyment conundrum. I asked people to indicate their perception of each novel you see on this chart. Because this project is about perception,respondents did not need to have read the book to provide a response. Using a Likert-style scale, people ranked books along two binary spectra: highbrow/lowbrow (taste) and entertaining/boring (enjoyment.) This chart illustrates over 170 anonymous responses.

Given that I primarily circulated the survey through graduate student listservs, the results likely aren’t representative of the population at large (e.g., some said they perceive Uylesses as more entertaining than 50 Shades of Grey). However, they do show some interesting things about how books are perceived among English graduate students at UT and the people to whom they forward surveys (like our moms.) Here are some of those things:

  • Books by African American authors received about the same scores for both taste and enjoyment with one exception—Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Books by ladies were generally less highbrow than books by dudes (but not by a lot) 
  • Stereotypically “trashy” genres—horror, fantasy, and science fiction—were generally rated as more entertaining and less highbrow than their more "serious" counterparts
  • Atlas Shrugged is too damn long, even for some of these nerds

Books in graph: 1984 A Handmaid's Tale A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Atlas Shrugged Beloved Brave New World Carrie Catcher in the Rye Fifty Shades of Grey Good in Bed Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Hunger Games Little Women Native Son Orlando Slaughterhouse-Five The Color Purple The Great Gatsby The Hobbit The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe The Lord of the Flies The Old Man and the Sea The Runaway Jury The Sound and the Fury Their Eyes Were Watching God Twilight The World According to Garp Ulysses

Can't see the graph? Zoom in!

Book covers from Wikipedia. 

Chart by me. 

Thanks to Jenn for the heads up on DWF's syllabi.

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