Campus: Horror stories

People might think students read the classics but what they actually enjoy is a good thriller or adventure novel. By Fran Abrams and Sarah Deech
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Ruth Harper may not know it, but she has something in common with thousands of other British students. At the moment she is reading Trainspotting, an anarchic view of the Scottish drugs scene by Irvine Welsh that was recently released as a film and has become phenomenally successful with undergraduates. Her all-time favourite books are Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin and The Queen and I by Sue Townsend. She also reads Cosmopolitan magazine, which "always has really exciting covers but then it's usually a real let-down inside".

Like most of her contemporaries, this 21-year-old Spanish and History of Art student from Leeds University prefers modern fiction to the classics and lists only 20th-century writers among her choice of reading matter.

She is not alone. Today's students have largely abandoned the giants of 18th and 19th-century literature in favour of thrillers, adventure novels and comic books. A survey of 200 students at four universities carried out exclusively for the Independent reveals that the most popular writers among undergraduates are Roald Dahl and Stephen King, who writes horror stories.

Face-to-face interviews by Student Marketing, a London-based specialist firm set up by graduates to research opinions and lifestyles on campuses, reveal a shift away from older works and an obsession with popular culture.

The students' favourite magazine was not Loaded, NME or Cosmopolitan, but the fashion and pop culture of Sky. Cosmopolitan was second on their list, with More ranking third.

Although JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was the most frequently mentioned all-time favourite novel, Trainspotting was not far behind. The numbers were small - seven were reading Irvine Welsh's novel and a further five named it as their all-time great - but there were definite trends. Nine were reading Stephen King novels last week, five had one of John Grisham's legal thrillers to hand and five were reading Andy McNabb's SAS action novels.

Most of the students, studying at Brighton, Cardiff, Liverpool and London, read a quality newspaper, with the Times being the most popular: "Because it's cheap, and it was the paper we got at home," says one. The Sun ran the Guardian a close second at Brighton and ranked equal favourite with the Mirror and the Financial Times at Cardiff.

The findings are backed up by a survey by Book Marketing, which has questioned 1,800 adults each year since 1989 about their reading habits. It found that while students were slightly more likely than the average adult to say they read "classics or literature", only a quarter had read any during the past year compared with one in seven of the whole sample. They were more likely to enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, tales of horror and the occult, war and adventure stories and humour or cartoon books.

Works of literature featured only fifth on the students' list of favoured fictional genres - after romance, crime, thrillers and detective stories.

Some experts view these developments with alarm, others with equanimity. While the modernists in the literary world argue that books are still surprisingly popular and that many modern writers have much to offer, traditionalists say the intellectual integrity of Britain's youth is at stake.

Among the optimists is Professor David Punter of Stirling University, the chairman of the Council for College and University English. Given hardship and the cost of books, he says, it is encouraging that students still read so much.

"I think there are a number of popular authors who are still writing challenging fiction. I think Stephen King is writing a very complex kind of fiction that gets a long way with a lot of highly contemporary issues," he says.

Dr Tim Cook, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Kingston, regrets the fact that his department must run a foundation course to give undergraduates a basic grounding in literature. Only about half of them have a real enthusiasm for the subject, he says.

"You can't necessarily make a reference to Alice in Wonderland and expect that people will pick it up - it is a much less literary culture. Looking at the average student today I often wonder who the audience for Melvyn Bragg is."


Roald Dahl (various)

Stephen King (various)

J R R Tolkien ('Lord of the Rings')

Irvine Welsh ('Trainspotting')

J D Salinger ('Catcher in the Rye')

George Orwell (1984)

John Grisham (various)

Andy McNabb ('Bravo Two Zero'/'Immediate Action')

Sarah Watts, 20: studying mathematics at Bristol University.

Current leisure reading: The Chamber by John Grisham

All time favourite: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Magazines: Marie Claire, Elle, Vanity Fair

Newspapers: the Times

Julian Craughan, 20: is studying law at University College, London.

Current reading: The State We're In, by Will Hutton

All-time favourite: London Fields, by Martin Amis

Magazines: Time Out

Newspapers: the Independent, the Guardian, the Observer