IIRC, since it was “rediscovered” C1965 there hasn’t been a single year when it didn’t make the top 100 list of best selling English language novels. Added to that, The Silmarillion was the best selling novel of the year in 1977 and in the top 10 for 2 years afterwards, which tells you a lot about the demand created by LOtR.
To suggest that LOTR was only read by handful of people is just crazy. It’s one of the best selling Engish language novels of all time. In many lists it is *THE *number 1.
Up to the mid 80s, sure, because of the objection of the author/publisher. the fact that the book was a consistent best seller for 20 years despite never being published in paperback does not indicate a lack of popularity, quite the opposite.
No. Just no.
Many of us did read it in college. But we *first *read it in our early teens. It’s one of those books that tends to get re-read every few years.
A point ot consider, the hero of the 1984 movie “Neverending Story” was a 12 year old boy. The book was well known enough to the general public that it could be casually included alongside Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz in a list of books that a well-read 12 yo in 1984 would have been expected to have read.