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New York Public Library’s most checked-out books say a lot about what we read and why

by Ron Charles for The Washington Post January 15, 2020

1. “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)

2. “The Cat in the Hat,” by Dr. Seuss (1957)

3. “1984,” by George Orwell (1949)

4. “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak (1963)

5. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee (1960)

6. “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White (1952)

7. “Fahrenheit 451,” by Ray Bradbury (1953)

8. “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie (1936)

9. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling (1997)

10. “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle (1969)

The books we return to year after year tell a curious story about who we are.

The New York Public Library has just released the titles of the 10 most checked-out books in its 125-year history. Bestsellers may offer a snapshot of passing fads, but this remarkable list compiled from more than a century of circulation data is like a literary cardiogram of the nation’s beating heart.

Be encouraged. At No. 1 is “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats. This gently playful picture book — one of the first to feature a black child without the trappings of racist stereotypes — was published during the civil rights movement in 1962. Keats tells the story of little Peter enjoying a cityscape transformed by winter. The boy makes snow angels, slides down a hill and listens to his footprints: crunch, crunch, crunch. He’s a black child who is every child, and for generations, kids and adults have resonated with those elemental words and images in perfect harmony.

In fact, the list of books most frequently checked out of the New York Public Library is dominated by titles for children, particularly picture books. There’s a practical reason for that: Shorter books get returned more quickly, which makes greater turnover possible. But that numerical justification can’t obscure the real explanation, which is that for generations, parents have been turning to libraries to satisfy their children’s thirst for stories.

And, surely it’s no coincidence that we Americans are drawn — from the youngest age — to tales of independent kids. The soporific observations of Dick and Jane appeared in the early 1930s, but the naughty adventure of “The Cat in the Hat” is No. 2 on the NYPL list. As the world knows, Dr. Seuss presents the tale of two siblings left alone by their trusting mother to “sit! sit! sit! sit!” in the house on a “cold, cold wet day.” Soon, a zany cat crashes in, announcing, “We can have lots of good fun that is funny!” How delightfully chaotic this book is, how packed with irresistible mischief. But its most subversive moment comes at the very end, after the house has been spotlessly restored and Mother returns to ask, “What did you do?” Suddenly, the boy narrator turns outward and confronts us with the first great ethical crisis of our reading experience: “Should we tell her about it?” he asks. “Well . . . what would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?”

That same untamed spirit animates several other books on the NYPL list, especially “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak. Who isn’t cheered by the example of Max, who donned his wolf suit and “made mischief of one kind and another”? Over the years “and in and out of weeks and through a day,” millions of young readers have fantasized about defying their mothers and leading monsters on a wild rumpus. Here, in lush pictures and a gripping tale is the reassurance we all need — as children and parents — that even if we’re wild, we can come home again and find dinner waiting for us. And it will still be hot.

Slightly older readers are ready for a more complex lesson in the complications of life, and they get it from “Charlotte’s Web.” With his story about the barnyard friendship of a pig and a wise spider, E.B. White made us and our parents cry, which was upsetting but also comforting in ways we couldn’t understand until we had our own children. Writing in a clear, gently witty tone that New Yorker readers enjoyed for half a century, White created a profoundly intimate space, a little sanctuary in which we could learn about death, yes, but also the persistence of love.

Surely, the least surprising title on this list is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which sits dead center at No. 5. Since it was published in 1960, Harper Lee’s novel has become the nation’s darling, an emblem of our racial enlightenment. A poll conducted by PBS for “The Great American Read” determined that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the country’s favorite novel. It was the first book to make many of us aware of the moral power of literature. For generations, lawyers have cited Atticus Finch as their professional inspiration, and white liberals have celebrated his sober principles. In the precocious voice of little Scout, Lee captures the weird amalgamation of our persistent innocence and profound wisdom. But even more crucial to the novel’s success, Lee negotiates our tangled racism and idealism with exquisite dexterity. She challenges the nation’s prejudices while presenting us with a vision of invincible decency.

Other books on this list present our anxieties in far less subtle tones. Two of the top 10 are dystopian novels, nightmarish visions of governments determined to distort and destroy independent thought. Skeptics may say that George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” appear here only because they’ve been assigned in high schools for decades, but if that were the sole driver of these circulation stats, then where are “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby” with their decades’ head start?

No, Orwell and Bradbury prick a nerve deep in our souls. Especially for people who haunt libraries, nothing is as hypnotically horrific as the incineration of books that Bradbury imagined. And Orwell’s “1984” elaborates on that terror in ways we never forget. Writing in the ashes of World World II, he described a totalitarian society under constant surveillance and devoted to a cult of personality that suffers no dissension. The terrified citizens of Oceania endure such a torrent of deceptive language from their leader that facts become infinitely flexible, essentially irrelevant. On one hand, it’s encouraging to see such a politically incisive book garner a wide readership over many decades. But on the other, it’s distressing that the popularity of “1984” has not been enough to keep it from coming true in America.

Only one work of nonfiction appears on this list, and of course it must be that perennial bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The abiding mystery is why Dale Carnegie didn’t wheedle himself a higher spot than No. 8. A failed actor from the Midwest, Carnegie discovered early that he had a knack for convincing people they could re-engineer their personalities — for fun or profit! One of the greatest self-help books in a nation crazy for self-help books, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” appeared in the midst of the Great Depression, but it’s a descendant of Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography.” Our Founding Father set out the principles for a nation dedicated to self-invention, and almost 150 years later Carnegie reduced those principles to pages of wit-free advice and homespun anecdotes.

It’s a safe bet that everyone who hopefully picks up Carnegie’s book nowadays was raised on the story of another unlikely boy who won friends and influenced people. Given how recently it was published — relative to the library’s 125-year history — it’s magical that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” appears at No. 9. The youngest — and the longest — book on the list, “Harry Potter” is a phenomenon whose influence will be felt for generations. With their adventures about a humble kid who fights the powers of darkness, J.K. Rowling’s novels have encouraged untold millions of children to read; reinvigorated the fantasy genre; revived the fortunes of publishing; and generated billions for Hollywood (and Rowling).

And finally, gnawing away at the bottom of this list is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” by Eric Carle. Heedless and oblivious, the lumpy caterpillar consumes everything without regard to anything — not even its own health. But in the fullness of time, the omnivorous larva is resurrected and transformed in glorious perfection. Is there a more American character in our literature?

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

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