Despite last year’s revelation in Harper Lee’s sequel of his later racism, a survey of UK readers has declared him literature’s most stirring hero, over Harry Potter, Bridget Jones and Frodo Baggins
Atticus Finch, hero of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is the most inspiring character in literature, according to new research – despite his outing as a racist in Lee’s sequel last summer.
A survey of 2,000 UK adults to mark the 10th anniversary of literacy charity Quick Reads found that Finch, the lawyer father of Lee’s child heroine Scout, topped the list of the most inspiring literary character for both men and women. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, but in Go Set a Watchman, the surprise sequel published by Lee last summer, he takes a different perspective on race, asking his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
For women, Finch was followed as most inspirational character by the bow-and-arrow wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen, from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series. JRR Tolkien’s ring-bearing hobbit Frodo Baggins was in second place for men.
Harry Potter was the third most inspiring character in literature for both men and women. Fourth place was taken by Helen Fielding’s weight-watching diarist Bridget Jones for women, and by Dan Brown’s code-cracking “symbologist” Robert Langdon – he of the “charcoal turtleneck, Harris Tweed jacket, khakis, and collegiate cordovan loafers” – for men.
The research, produced in partnership with Dr Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, also asked respondents which fictional character they most identified with, with Bridget Jones topping the list for women, and Frodo Baggins for men.
Women also cited Stephenie Meyer’s teenage character Bella Swan, who is torn between vampire and werewolf love interests in the Twilight Saga, as one of the characters they could most identify with, along with Jodi Picoult’s creation Anna Fitzgerald from My Sister’s Keeper, the sister born to be a genetic match for her sibling who has cancer. Men, meanwhile, singled out Yann Martel’s Pi Patel, the boy who travels an ocean in a boat with a tiger in Life of Pi, as a fictional creation they identified with.
Respondents were given a list of characters to select from, with characters ranging from EL James’s Christian Grey to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander failing to make the final ranking.
The survey found that readers prefer to read about a character who makes mistakes (23%) and is funny (20%), than one who is brave (19%), loyal (17%) or kind (11%).
“It is clear that readers are not looking for flawless characters, but instead they are looking for real characters that show us that it is OK to make mistakes. Bridget Jones tops the list as the character that most women identify with, but interestingly she is also in the top five of most inspiring characters, too,” the researchers write.
“The realisation that others share similar feelings of imperfection or inadequacy creates a shift from being ‘alone’ to being ‘one of many,’ enabling readers to challenge previous ideas of being different or non-normal, and become more accepting of their true selves.”
Pointing to research last summer that “explored the idea that reading exposes people to the widest and most inclusive human range” and argued the case for a literature-based health intervention, the survey said that “it is unsurprising therefore that when asked about the characters from bestselling novels that most people enjoy reading about, it is those that make mistakes who topped the list, above characters that are loyal or brave”.
The Quick Reads research also found that 27% of respondents had been inspired to “make a positive change in their lives” as a result of reading, such as looking for a new job or ending a bad relationship, while 36% had been inspired to go travelling by a book.
Half of respondents said that reading made them more sympathetic to the beliefs of others, while 17% said that books had “inspired them to remain calm during a disagreement”. Thirty-eight per cent of respondents said that reading was their “ultimate stress remedy”, 41% of regular readers said a book was a better antidote to stress than meeting up with friends, and 31% said reading had “made them realise they are happy with what they have”, said the survey.
The results of the research arrive as Quick Reads releases a new collection of short books – selling for £1 – by authors including Malala Yousafzai and Andy McNab, aimed at busy people and less confident readers.
The six new Quick Reads titles are Agatha Christie’s The Double Clue: Poirot Short Stories, edited by Sophie Hannah and John Curran, Ann Cleeves’ Too Good to be True, Lucy Diamond’s A Baby at the Beach Café, The Anniversary: Ten Tempting Stories From Ten Bestselling Authors edited by Veronica Henry, McNab’s On the Rock, and an abridged version of Yousafzai’s I Am Malala.
This article was written by Alison Flood, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th February 2016 13.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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