The literary canon may not be dead across America's college campuses, but its heartbeat has grown weak and erratic.
That's the diagnosis of the Siena Research Institute, which has been putting its finger on the pulse of the so-called Great Books debate since 1985.
Siena's third and latest national survey shows a steady erosion when it comes to the standing of the classics, according to 4,125 freshmen and 215 faculty who filled out questionnaires.
It uses as a baseline a list of 30 Great Books selected in 1984 by William Bennett, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan. Bennett created the list with input from his friends, including the conservative columnist George Will.
Siena repeated its survey on the 30 classic titles in 1997 and 2006.
"In every case, the expectations by faculty what they believe college freshmen should have read in high school exceeds the reality of what they've actually read," said Tom Kelly, a Siena history professor emeritus. He conducted the survey with Douglas Lonnstrom, director of the Research Institute.
"There's a continuity of decline," Kelly said. "When you get to the bottom 10 of the 30 books, they're being read by fewer and fewer students."
For example, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" was read by only 3 percent of freshmen surveyed, Tolstoy's "War and Peace" by just 4 percent and Aristotle's "Politics" by 5 percent.
The Bible dropped from 80 percent to 56 percent between 1985 and 2006 among surveyed faculty who recommended that freshmen should have read the Scriptures in high school.
Among novels read by freshmen, "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens and George Orwell's "1984" dropped the most, with double-digit declines from 1985.
On the upside, the survey revealed a Brad Pitt factor and the power of Hollywood.
Kelly attributed sharp increases among students surveyed regarding those who've read Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad" (up from 43 percent to 59 percent) to the 2004 release of "Troy," a film adaptation of Homer's epic starring Pitt.
Similarly, a 2005 movie of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" starring Keira Knightley caused that book's stock to rise from 14 percent in 1985 to 23 percent among students surveyed in 2006.
... the rest.