Research · Editorial

New OU study launches to learn reading habits in the UK

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Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter feature in an emerging list of the nations’ most influential novels.

In June, The Open University’s nQuire website ( launched the last in a series of surveys designed to find the novels that have made the greatest impact on the British public.

The social study, produced by a team of researchers from the OU and the University of Wolverhampton, aims to build a comprehensive picture of how reading preferences vary across the United Kingdom.

The project was inspired by the BBC’s The Novels That Shaped Our World list; a selection of 100 influential books across 10 categories which were chosen by a panel of authors and literary experts. Researchers are asking the public to let them know what they think of the list and to suggest the novels they think should be included.

Take part in the study now! For each survey you complete, you will receive a list of personalised reading recommendations from our literary experts!

Contributing researchers at the University of Wolverhampton launched one of the surveys which used the ten categories from BBC’s The Novels That Shaped Our World project, with participants from the UK general public providing interesting responses.

Of the novels nominated in the Adventure category, a surprising number of titles were written for children, with many adult readers reporting that stories such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland continue to play a role in shaping their imaginations and representing important themes.

In the Identity and Class and Society categories, a high number of older novels featured including the works of authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, suggesting that many of the themes that preoccupied 19th Century authors and readers continue to be relevant to today’s readers.

However, other categories such as Coming of Age featured a more varied mix of older and newer books.

Among the public’s recommendations, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series were firm favourites; scoring highly in the Adventure and Identity categories. It appears that readers do not simply turn to imaginary worlds as a means of escape, with fantasy novels having the ability to play important role in helping people make sense of their own lives and situations.

Commenting on this study, Christothea Herodotou, Academic lead of nQuire said:

“This series of missions showed how nQuire can engage people with diverse demographics and from different geographic locations with literature over a period of time and through multiple investigations, while also provide personalised book recommendations based on people’s current reading preferences.”

Researchers have also noticed new hints of geographical differences in people’s reading habits. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a firm favourite among English respondents in the Identity category, did not feature highly in recommendations from Northern Irish readers despite it being a consistent fixture on school reading lists around the UK.

Discussing the positive reaction from the general public reaction to the nQuire mission, Professor Sebastian Groes, one of the lead academics on the project from the University of Wolverhampton, commented:

“The BBC list has been a great talking point… but a selection of novels compiled by literary professionals is always going to be different to one chosen by the public. Our research shows us not just which books are considered to be important by those who make a living from literature, but which books people are reading because they enjoy them and think they are good.”

We need your help to complete the study

To further understand the views of the general public, researchers from the OU and University of Wolverhampton would like readers from across the UK to take part in the surveys. The more responses participants share, the better researchers will be able to understand how reading habits differ among different groups in the country.

All the surveys are hosted on the OU’s nQuire website, a citizen science platform which allows researchers and the general public to work together across different social and open missions. Commenting on open nature of the nQuire platform, Peter Harvey, a producer who worked with researchers to design the surveys, shared:

“Thanks to the way that nQuire works, we can offer people a great incentive for taking part. Participants don’t just get a buzz from helping with important research; we also hope they’ll discover their next great read.”