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New York Public Library Announces Its Most Borrowed Books of All Time

The list, dominated by children’s literature, spans 125 years of reading

The top ten include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hungry Caterpillar and The Cat in the Hat. (Courtesy NYPL)
smithsonianmag.com

What’s something you’ve probably read, apart from the first half of this sentence? If you live in the Empire State, your local library might have a good guess: This week, the New York Public Library announced the top ten most borrowed books in its 125-year history.

The titles that made the cut offer some interesting insights on locals’ reading habits. (See the full list below.) Selected from the millions of books that have been checked out of the library since 1895, Ezra Jack Keats’ children’s story The Snowy Day, described as a “charming, beautifully illustrated tale of a child enjoying the simple magic that snow brings to his city,” tops the list.

The book, which features an African-American protagonist named Peter, represents one of the earliest examples of diversity in children’s literature. Since its publication in 1962, The Snowy Day has been borrowed 485,583 times, a figure garnered across the library system’s 92 locations.

“As a young boy, Ezra found a safe haven and inspiration in the public library,” says Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, in a statement. “Part of his legacy has been to extend the welcome of public libraries by creating books that reflect the diverse faces of the children who use the library.”

Following close behind is another children’s book: The Cat in the Hat, a rhyme-heavy Dr. Seuss classic published in 1957. Chronicling the misadventures of its brightly-accessorized titular character, the classic has been checked out 469,650 times. The list then takes a turn for the macabre, with George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel foretelling the societal tolls of totalitarianism, coming in third place.

With their shorter lengths and universal appeal, kids’ books are the unsurprisingly dominant force on the NYPL list, with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar clocking in at spots four, six, nine and ten, respectively.

Top 10 borrowed books
Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day is the most borrowed book in the 125-year history of the New York Public Library. (Courtesy NYPL)

Conciseness appeared to factor in for a few adult books on the list as well: Both 1984 and the fifth-place winner, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, err on the shorter ends of their genres. Per the NYPL, additional contributing factors for the top contenders included length of time in print, translation into different languages, timeliness in terms of current events, school assignments, and awards and acknowledgement.

Of course, there were exceptions to these trends, including the first Harry Potter novel, published in the United States in 1998. That’s 62 years after the oldest book on the list: Dale Carnegie’s self-help volume, How to Win Friends and Influence Peoplealso the only nonfiction title to make the top ten.

Modern interest in dystopian fiction (think The Hunger Games) has also prompted today’s patrons to reach for topical titles of the past, the library notes: 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the seventh-place book, are popular retro reads.

Some of these checkouts may not have been entirely self-motivated. Orwell, Lee and Bradbury are among the many authors who have become fixtures on middle and high school reading lists. The pressure may even transcend curricula: To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, has been called “America’s novel,” and the library acknowledges the idea that readers might feel a sense of obligation to leaf through its pages at least once.

Such mixed literary feelings also played a role in the library’s listing of an honorable mention: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. The popular children’s book would almost certainly have unseated another title further up the list if not for children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore, whose distaste for the story kept it off NYPL shelves until 1972, 25 years after its publication date.

Snowy Day library card
The NYPL has released special edition library cards featuring the cover of The Snowy Day. (Courtesy NYPL)

Librarians and analysts included all book formats, including e-books, in their final tally, compiling data from recent circulation, best-seller lists and more to finalize the winners, reports Concepción de León for the New York Times.

The list helps kick off the institution’s yearlong celebration of its 125th birthday, a bookish bonanza that will include talks by authors, several exhibitions and Book of the Day emails. To help commemorate the big reveal, NYPL has also released limited-edition library and Metro cards featuring artwork from The Snowy Day.

Those same library cards will hopefully help generate future lists for decades to come, library team member Andrew Medlar tells de León.

“New Yorkers created this list,” says Medlar. “We just counted it.”

The Top 10 Checkouts

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats / 485,583 checkouts
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss / 469,650 checkouts

  3. 1984 by George Orwell / 441,770 checkouts

  4. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak / 436,016 checkouts

  5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee / 422,912 checkouts

  6. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White / 337,948 checkouts

  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury / 316,404 checkouts

  8. How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie / 284,524 checkouts

  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling / 231,022 checkouts

  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle / 189,550 checkouts

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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