Hits of the 1990s
The Pudding published a fun and interesting visual exploration of which titles published in the 1990s have become part of the teaching canon in higher ed. The winner by a very large margin is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — a book of linked stories about the Vietnam War published in 1990. Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things are #2 and #3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is #4. Here is how those titles track over the past decade (this is from Open Syllabus Analytics — which you can test drive)
I have no special insight here, but a couple thoughts.
Independent of literary merit, successful new titles need a socially resonant theme. Middle-aged English professors in the 1990s were in their teens and twenties during the Vietnam War — a formative experience that probably contributed to The Things They Carried‘s classroom success. Can we test that with OS data? I think so. By the 2010s, the same faculty were retiring and, to an extent, carrying The Things They Carried with them — out of the classroom, slowly, partially, over the decade. Canonization is durable but not permanent, and the semester calendar forces zero-sum choices in the selection of texts.
Harry Potter is a different story — and not a shocker if one looks at the contexts in which it is assigned. The Harry Potter series is assigned primarily in children’s literature classes — not the American literature classes where you can find O’Brien and Cisneros, or the world and post-colonial literature classes that assign Roy. Children’s literature has a comparatively large footprint in OS data because it is a subfield of both English and Education. It also shows up in reading and literacy classes — again, both in the English and Education fields. The Sorcerer’s Stone is the representative text in these contexts. There’s not much classroom digging into the later books, though Prisoner of Azkaban is the distant #2.