So the "BBC 100 books" meme is going around Facebook again. You've seen it -- it's a list of 100 books, chosen by some arcane process, of which the BBC has found most people have read only 6. And you're supposed to go thru the list, marking the ones you've read, & tagging your friends.
Problem is, of course, that the BBC apparently had no such intention in compiling their original list (which can be found here). That list is a reader-voted list of 100 most popular novels. Somewhere along the line, someone monkeyed around with that list, making a bit more highbrow (maladroitly – they added both Shakespeare's Complete Works and Hamlet, separately). It's in that latter form that it's getting passed around as a test of one's literacy. (For a straightforward comparison of the two lists, & their sources, see this blog post.)
What does the phenomenon say about contemporary reading habits, & habits of thought more generally? Well, first & most obviously: when people think about "books" they've read, they think novels. The BBC was explicit about their list being novels; whoever altered the list to "books" didn't really think it necessary to do more than throw in a couple of Shakespeares – after all, the important reads are still novels. Where're the biographies, the books of history, the nonfiction things that squat atop the bestseller lists for ages?
Secondly, most people apparently haven't read a whole lot since high school, and what they've read rarely goes beyond the front displays of Barnes & Noble (or Waterstone's). The vast majority of the books here fall into roughly three categories: classic children's books (and young people's books – Little Women, The Secret Garden); things that are assigned in secondary school (To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath); and books that have been atop the bestseller lists (Harry Potter, Captain Corelli's Mandolin). There's also a fair number of "classics," especially in the later "altered" list – what I would call "warhorse" classics, books that everyone's heard of & agrees are suitably serious (Jane Austen, Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy).
But most interestingly, everyone still wants to feel themselves somehow "well read" – that they've somehow kept ahead of the curve of their peers, those poor schmucks who've only read 6 books from this list. Frankly, I imagine anyone who reads much at all – anyone, that is, who isn't part of that 95% of the American public who never reads a book* – has probably read at least 15 or 20 of these. But I'm not sure there isn't a category mistake taking place here: can we really call the warm bath of looking back over Winnie the Pooh (#7) or Black Beauty (#58) reading in the same sense that working one's way through Ulysses (#78) or Gormenghast (#84) is reading?
*I just made that statistic up.