Memory  /  Study

What Literature Do We Study From the 1990s?

The turn-of-the-century literary canon, using data from college syllabi.

Using Open Syllabus, which archives university-level syllabi, we identified 1.9 million entries from English Literature classes since 2010. We looked at which books from the 1990s are, today, widely assigned in college-level English Literature classes.

Here’s the #1, most-assigned ’90s book, which appears on 2,050 syllabi.

The Things They Carried (1990)

The Things They Carried wasn’t mega-popular when it was published; it wasn’t even a New York Times Best Seller.

But it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. NPR said it’s “now a staple of college and high school English classes, celebrated as one of the most important books about the experience of war.”

Today, The Things They Carried is pervasive in English literature curriculum. But understanding how it got there is even more important.

How does a book become a present-day classic, enthusiastically assigned by educators? Among the things I considered were: was it heavily awarded? Did it have an outsized impact on culture? Does it pertain to a topic that the next generation should know (in the case of The Things They Carried, an account of the Vietnam war)?

Here's the #2 most-assigned book.

#2 Woman Hollering Creek (1991)

When we look at Woman Hollering Creek’s popularity on Goodreads, it’s far less popular than The Things They Carried. It has 9,900 ratings—compare that to The Things They Carried’s 286,000 ratings!

Woman Hollering Creek is ranked #52,311 in quantity of Goodreads ratings, the lowest among the 10 most-assigned ’90s fiction.

For Stanford’s Literary Lab, Digital Humanities scholar J.D. Porter points out a number of books that were never commercially popular, but have, over time, grown into a dominant force in the literary canon. One important example is the 1937 classic Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

“Before 1970, Zora Neale Hurston was the primary subject author in just 4 MLA articles, and all of her novels were out of print; none had sold more than 5,000 copies. It was famously the efforts of prestigious scholars and writers, especially Alice Walker, that recuperated her.
And it worked: Today Hurston has over 700 MLA articles, and she has more Goodreads ratings than authors ranging from the canon that predated her…No doubt much of the public familiarity with her work derives from its now-common presence in classrooms, but this is precisely the point...a boost in prestige, driven by scholars and practitioners, and mediated through the classroom, led to a boost in popularity. The arc of escape from obscurity pulled her not just up but away.”

This story of Zora Neale Hurston ends with an important point by Porter, “We do not merely study what people read; people read what we study.”