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Books That Make You Dumb

Posted by Joshua Glenn  January 30, 2008 01:10 PM

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A new, pseudo-scientific website suggests a way to arrive at a "correlation between books and dumbitude." Booksthatmakeyoudumb is the latest project of Caltech grad student Virgil Griffith, whose infamous Wikiscanner software revealed, this past summer, that somebody at Halliburton had deleted information from a Wikipedia entry on war crimes, while someone at Pepsi had altered Wikipedia’s entry about health problems caused by soft drinks. Griffith's latest provocation scans Facebook to link college students' favorite reading matter with the schools they attend, and then links this data to the average SAT/ACT score of students at those schools. The result: a list of 100 favorite books, ranked by standardized test score.

Despite its slightly obnoxious title, Booksthatmakeyoudumb isn't actually arguing that reading certain books will make you less intelligent. The chart that Griffith has posted instead suggests that college students who scored poorly on the SATs prefer (or claim to prefer, when describing themselves on Facebook) certain books; college students with high SAT scores, meanwhile, prefer (same caveat) a markedly different set of books. Which is interesting, right?


Books classified -- by the users of LibraryThing -- the social cataloging web application for storing and sharing personal library catalogs and book lists -- as Erotica ("Zane," "Addicted," "Nervous"), African American ("The Color Purple," "Flyy Girl"), and Religion (The Bible, "The Purpose-Driven Life") are at the low end of Griffith's chart. At the high end of the chart, we find books categorized as Classics ("Lolita," "100 Years of Solitude," "Crime and Punishment”); also, we find "Freakonomics."

Science fiction appears at both ends of the chart: Near the top, we find Ayn Rand's pro-capitalism dystopia "Atlas Shrugged," Kurt Vonnegut's apocalyptic "Cat's Cradle," and Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game," about a child whose mad video-game skills allow him to save the planet from real space invaders. Near the bottom, we find Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." But Bradbury's book is a classic work of fiction, never mind the genre; "Enders Game" is uber-geeky drivel. Apparently there's just no accounting for dumbitude.

Via Scott McLemee/Crooked Timber.

UPDATE: Aha! I may have figured out why "Fahrenheit 451" is on the list, and why it's near the bottom. Worried about declining reading rates in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts launched the Big Read a while back -- a program that encourages communities where reading habits are particularly poor to read and discuss a single book. In 2007, nearly 200 communities nationwide read one of 12 classic American novels... one of which was "Fahrenheit 451."

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6 comments so far...
  1. Bogus! I would argue not that certain books make a person "dumb," but that a reader's selection is limited by his or her reading ability, which in turn is linked to SAT scores. As for affecting a reader's "favorites" list, I imagine that most people enjoy books more that are challenging. So, favorites lists might have a tendency to point toward books at the top end of a reader's comprehension level.

    Also, people who attend colleges with higher requirements are probably exposed through classes and peers to different books than those who attend colleges with lower entrance requirements. I would like to see a similar study with a wider pool of subjects, including people not attending college.

    Posted by Beki January 30, 08 04:45 PM
  1. How is it that Dianetics didn't make the list--on either end???

    Posted by MBattles January 31, 08 01:43 PM
  1. Ender's Game, drivel? Nicht nicht.

    Posted by Carl February 1, 08 11:43 AM
  1. How inane. And the anti-intellectual slam on science fiction -- typical of people who don't "get" the genre -- was simply the rancid icing on the cake.

    Posted by Dan K. February 3, 08 07:09 AM
  1. Calling Ender's Game "drivel" - what a shameless attempt to whip up controversy and create page views! Of course, it *is* drivel, but still ...

    The problem with this amusing study is that the data is self-reported. People know what books are considered "smart books" and if they attend an academically rigorous college they're more likely to care about that designation and will embrace these titles. They won't put down the fact that they love Oprah's latest selection because their friends will sneer at them.

    Posted by Dave B February 3, 08 10:30 AM
  1. Thanks for the comments so far, readers.

    I agree with Dave B. that (a) the data in this study is problematic, and (b) "Ender's Game" is drivel. I say the former as an ex-sociology grad student (hence the parenthetical caveats in this item), and the latter as a proud science fiction fan.

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 4, 08 02:24 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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