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Hot Reading on Today's College Campuses

Generation X has yet to find a single book that defines its attitudes, but publishers still find ample markets among student populations

MODERN American history is filled with colorful sobriquets to describe passing generations. In a single century, we've witnessed the rise and fall of the ''lost generation,'' the beatniks, the hippies, and the yuppies.

Along with these tags, history often links generations to seminal works of fiction that summarize the attitudes and values of their contemporary audiences. Hemingway's ''The Sun Also Rises,'' Salinger's ''Catcher in the Rye,'' and Kerouac's ''On the Road'' are only a few of the defining texts of the American past.

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College students of the 1990s have already been given their tag. Whether they like it or not, -- and many do not -- they are Generation X, a generation so indecipherable as to lack a label.

And as another Generation X class graduates from American colleges this month, it is still a generation without a text.

The lack of a unifying text is not an indication that today's college students don't read. It is a sign of a less serious problem, however. There is simply too much available, too many types of media for students to latch onto a single book.

''Compared with the general consumer, I would certainly say that college students are big readers,'' says Steve Johnson, director for industry information and research for the National Association of College Stores. Mr. Johnson emphasizes the importance of college newspapers and of magazines like Sports Illustrated, Time, and Rolling Stone.

But a comprehensive study of students' book-buying preferences does not exist, in part because the racial, ethnic, and social composition of today's college campus has led to a fragmented, more diverse, and generally intractable literary scene.

''I don't know if it was ever true that there was a single book that college students used to define themselves,'' says John McGreevy, associate professor of history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. ''But it's a tougher question now than it was 30 years ago, because there are a lot more people in college, a more diverse range of people.''

Multiculturalism sells

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Among booksellers, the term ''diversity'' refers to a number of different phenomena, including the varying interests of students in different regions of the country.

''You're going to find that what's read is different in New Orleans than somewhere up North,'' says Stan Frank, marketing manager of the Barnes & Noble college bookstore division.

But the most important aspect of ''diversity'' to booksellers is the continued expansion of multiculturalism in the nation's intellectual community.

Colleen Sherburne, assistant director of trade for Follet College Stores, which operates 200 bookstores nationally, notes the recent popularity of black journalist Nathan McCall's memoirs, ''Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America'' (Random House). She attributes much of its success to a college audience increasingly interested in questions of identity.

''We sell a lot of [books by] small, alternative presses,'' Ms. Sherburne adds, including ''a vast number of gay and lesbian titles, more than even two years ago.''

Donna LeSchander, a bookseller at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., also emphasizes the popularity of multicultural literature, making special mention of the works of black scholars Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates.

But booksellers unanimously find it difficult to pick out specific multicultural titles for special mention.

Ms. LeSchander, for instance, recognizes the likelihood that Gates and West are particularly popular in her store because both are professors at Harvard. And Chris Hocking, assistant manager of Border's Books and Music in Ann Arbor, Mich., confirms the trend toward multicultural works among students, although such titles are not among his store's bestsellers.

Perhaps while multicultural books are popular among college-age readers, a multicultural movement seeking greater diversity of titles on the nation's bookshelves removes the traditional emphasis on a single, popular text.

Books tied to courses

''We're buying and publishing things because we think they're going to get course adoption, and then we buy just pure good fiction because we think it's going to be popular, especially on college campuses,'' says Katy Barrett, director of publicity for the publisher Vintage in New York.

''Of course we're very aware that multicultural stuff is selling. But we don't necessarily publish for categories that way,'' she says.

''Part of the strategy is to publish books in series that are visibly recognizable, so that if people like one writer in the series they might try others. And part of marketing is to have a sleek look, something that will appeal to a young audience,'' Ms. Barrett says.

Another strategy of publishers is to arrange interviews of popular writers in college newspapers and in alternative weeklies serving university communities.

''Sniping, putting advertisements about new books on college campuses, especially if the writers are coming to town,'' is a popular strategy for people like author and cultural scholar Camille Paglia, Barrett says.

Multicultural titles popular on campus include: ''Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations,'' by Bell Hooks (Routledge); ''Colored People: A Memoir,'' by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Vintage); ''Race Matters,'' by Cornell West (Vintage). Other titles of multicultural fiction transcend a student audience: ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Harper Perennial); ''The Joy Luck Club'' and ''The Kitchen God's Wife,'' by Amy Tan (Ivy Books and Vintage); ''Like Water For Chocolate,'' by Laura Esquivel'' (Doubleday-Anchor Books); ''Beloved'' and anything else by Toni Morrison (New American Library).

But even the books specifically marketed for students are problematic as unifying agents.

''The Generation X stuff has been vastly overplayed in the media,'' says Sherburne of Follet College Stores. ''It's an identity problem. Most of the Generation X writers are writers who study Generation X as a phenomenon, not members of Generation X who write.''

''You get your Generation X authors, for lack of a better term,'' says Mr. Hocking of Border's bookstore. ''A handful of them, but just a few.''

The influence of MTV

Noteworthy among this ''handful,'' booksellers say, is Bret Easton Ellis, whose novels about the young, wealthy, and violent members of society appeal to the generation brought up on MTV. The back cover of Ellis's book, ''Less than Zero,'' extols the novel as a desperate search for the ultimate sensation ''in a style reminiscent of music videos.''

But, as Stephen Thernstrom, professor of history at Harvard University suggests, this marketing emphasis on video culture might provide another explanation for a college generation without a defining text.

''Students might have a few movies and television shows, instead of books, that influence their lives,'' Mr. Thernstrom says. ''Maybe a lot of today's intellectual culture is based in the visual rather than the written media.''

An informal poll of a small group of Harvard students about favorite books, music, films, and television shows seems to confirm this.

Even among a relatively homogenous population, the only consensus reached was in the area of television. Twenty percent of those polled volunteered ''The Simpsons'' as their favorite program.

Perhaps this marks the birth of a new sobriquet, ''The Bart Generation.''

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