Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is named as master of the Middle Market

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The Independent Culture

IF JOHN Ronald Reuel Tolkien were alive today (he died in 1973) he could allow a wintry smile to cross his craggy features, on learning that his epic saga of Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings, is the most popular book with British readers in the history of world literature.

IF JOHN Ronald Reuel Tolkien were alive today (he died in 1973) he could allow a wintry smile to cross his craggy features, on learning that his epic saga of Middle Earth, The Lord of the Rings, is the most popular book with British readers in the history of world literature.

First published in 1954-55, in three volumes, it has beaten Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) into second place and forced the Bible (c. 1388) into a pathetic third. Then comes Treasure Island (1883), The Silence of the Lambs (1989), Gone with the Wind (1936) and Little Women (1868).

The list of classic and sacred texts is interspersed with less canonical works, so that Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero (No.9) sits cheek-by-jowl with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (No.10), and Jeffrey Archer's rags-to-riches farrago Kane and Abel can be found at No.14, sandwiched between Wuthering Heights and War and Peace.

More than 1,000 British adults were surveyed by WH Smith, the newsagent and retailing chain. The findings coincide with Smith's announcement of the winner of its annual "Thumping Good Read Award", a kind of Booker Prize for people who trace their index finger down the page as they read. This year's winner is Boris Starling for his second novel, Storm.

In a separate list, the survey discovered that the nation's favourite authors - as opposed to favourite single works - are Catherine Cookson, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Danielle Steel, Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. William Shakespeare limps in at No.10, just behind Agatha Christie. Tolkien, despite his pre-eminence in the favourite-book category, only makes it to No.12.

The most extraordinary omission from both lists is JK Rowling and any of the Harry Potter titles, which have sold 80 million copies worldwide since 1997 and currently occupy the bestseller lists like an invading army. It could be argued that the survey is confined to adult readers, but this does not explain why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the nation's 11th favourite title (just ahead of Catcher in the Rye), or why Enid Blyton should turn up in the favouriteauthor choices.

Should we take such lists seriously? Probably not. The pathos of finding thick-ear SAS memoirs and tired old shlock such as The Thorn Birds and the works of Danielle Steel among the classics suggests that many of the readers surveyed have read nothing - or only one book - since their school or college days. Certainly, none of the sample thousand seems to have read or enjoyed anything very recently: the list of favourite books could have come from any year in the past decade.

A literary snob might suggest that modern readers do not browse in WH Smith when looking for something good (as opposed to Thumping) to read. They buy magazines in WH Smith and books in Waterstone's. Sadly for the snobs, when Waterstone's commissioned its own survey of browsers' favourites, Tolkien came out on top of that, too.

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