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Campus bestsellers: texts, or just a fun read?

At Smith College, one of America's oldest women's colleges, this fall's bestseller looks to be: "The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA."

And the Smith runner-up? "The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe."

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Well, OK. Riveting or not, both books clearly have sufficient intellectual gravitas to uphold the school's reputation.

A few miles away, the women at rival Mount Holyoke College, which bills itself as the country's "oldest continuing liberal-arts institution for women," are reading decidedly different top authors. "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," a brightly written tome about globalization by Thomas Friedman is No. 1 there. Second in line is "Summer Sisters," a novel by Judy Blume.

Americans have an insatiable quest to compare colleges and universities on every level imaginable. U.S. News & World Report's annual academic rankings always create a stir. Student unions and dorms - being built to ever-more luxurious specifications - are another favorite gauge of whether you'd want to spend time on a campus.

But given that school is at least partly about book-learning, it's educational to dip into the data about books that have the greatest currency on campus., the online bookseller, allows denizens of its Web site to prowl through its new electronic "purchasing circles" to find out which books are the biggest sellers at scores of schools nationwide.

The purchasing circles are specialized bestseller lists drawn from Zip codes and e-mail domain names of online book purchasers -, for instance. A purchasing circle is formed by groups of at least 200 or more customers, says on its Web site.

After U.S. News announced that Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., had been toppled as its pick for the top university by California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, some folks doubtless rushed to the site for insights on how the king had been dethroned. Forget the weather - was the reading getting a bit light? As it turns out, both schools have gravitas galore.

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Harvard's top of the heap is "Rebellion or Revolution?: England 1640-1660." On its heels is "The Causes of the English Civil War." Meanwhile, Caltech men and women are reading "Evolving Brains" and "Neural Networks for Pattern Recognition."

Clearly, these lists do provide a tiny window into campus concerns - even as they make a 9-to-5'er feel a little left out.

But it's obvious that students, like the rest of us, have an eye for the practical. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other top schools, for instance, the winner was: "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis."

High seriousness is not always dominant. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" surfaces on Vanderbilt University's and others' lists. "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" also pops up at Michigan State University and University of Oklahoma.

And at the Army's United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., interservice rivalry has been put aside to make "The Complete Guide to Navy Seal Fitness" the No. 3 bestseller there.

For the big picture, there's also a national list. Reassuringly (or perhaps a matter for concern?), the top position is not occupied by what you might expect: "Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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