The Most Borrowed Books in the History of the New York Public Library
There are a few classics and some surprises among the most checked out books in the storied library's 125-year history.
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126 years of lending books
For the past 126 years, the New York Public Library has been a source of information, curiosity and wonder for residents of the five boroughs and visitors to the city alike. Though the library is so much more than books—featuring live events, historical exhibits, and stunning architecture at the main branch—books may be the main draw. Now, for the first time since 1895, librarians have compiled the list of most-checked-out books in the NYPL’s history.
“For 125 years, the Library has uniquely sparked, supported, and fostered a true love of reading in the people of New York City and beyond,” Anthony W. Marx, president of the New York Public Library said in a statement in 2020. “Among our many roles, we look to connect people with the stories that capture their imaginations, take them places, stay with them over time, encourage them to keep turning pages, and greatly impact and shape their lives. The books on this list have transcended generations and, much like the Library itself, are as relevant today as they were when they first arrived. This list tells us something about New Yorkers over the last 125 years—what moves them, what excites them, what stands the test of time. It’s a perfect way to kick off our celebration of the Library’s 125th anniversary…and it’s just the beginning.” Find out the most impressive library in your state.
The Snowy Day
With 485,583 checkouts, Ezra Jack Keats’ 1962 picture book The Snowy Day is the most-borrowed book in the history of the NYPL. The beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a young African-American child named Peter who lives in a city and experiences it with awe after his neighborhood’s first snowfall. Keats won the Caldecott Medal for his colorful collage illustrations in 1963. “At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the story, and it is absolutely brilliantly told,” Andrew Medlar, director of the Library’s BookOps selection team said in a statement. “It is such a relatable story and pure magic for kids and adults alike. It’s on people’s radar screens, they remember when they first heard it, and they want to share that experience with their kids. And the artwork is just gorgeous.”
The Cat in the Hat
When Theodor Seuss Geisel—aka Dr. Seuss—published The Cat in the Hat in 1957, most books geared towards beginning readers were full of boring, well-behaved children. Yes, we’re looking at you, Dick and Jane: the protagonists of a very bland, very white set of primers used to teach public school students how to read starting in the 1940s. Dr. Seuss decided to write something a little more exciting and sillier in order to capture children’s attention, and more than 50 years later, it’s still working. The Cat in the Hat tells the story of Dick and Sally (it’s not clear if this Dick is of any relation to the one paired with Jane), who are stuck at home on a rainy day with nothing to do. To their surprise, a large cat in an oversized hat shows up at their door, and mischief and hilarity ensue. The comical situations and rhythm of the story has made it popular with kids of every generation since it’s publication. With 469,650 checkouts, it’s the second most-borrowed book in NYPL history.
Unlike the first two entries on this list, George Orwell’s book 1984 isn’t exactly a light read, but is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. A well-known example of dystopian fiction, 1984 tells the story of a totalitarian society marked by never-ending war and constant government surveillance. Published in 1949, the book was set in the not-so-distant year of 1984. Whether or not you’ve read 1984, chances are you’re familiar with some of the terms that originated in the novel, including “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “newspeak,” which are now part of our lexicon. In fact, the word “Orwellian” has now come to mean something repressive or totalitarian thanks to 1984 and his previous novella, Animal Farm. With 441,770 checkouts, it is the third most-borrowed book in NYPL history. Both 1984 and Animal Farm have been banned in the past. Find out the books that were banned in the decade you were born.
Where The Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak’s 1963 ode to children’s imagination, Where the Wild Things Are, has remained popular in the 50 years since its publication. Like The Snowy Day, this book combines a classic story with iconic illustrations, which also made it a Caldecott Medal winner. Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a child named Max who is sent to bed without his dinner after he threatens to eat his mother. From his room, he imagines a new world and landscape full of monsters he befriends, and who eventually declare him to be wildest of them all. Though some children may find it a little scary, rest assured that the story has a happy ending. Though the book only has a total of 338 words, the story was meaty enough to be made into an animated short, opera, and a feature-length film. With 436,016 checkouts, it’s the fourth most-borrowed book in NYPL history.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare books that are both beloved and compulsory, ending up on many high school reading lists. Both of those factors likely contribute to the fact that it’s the fifth most-borrowed book in NYPL history, with 422,912 checkouts. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is loosely based on Lee’s own experiences growing up in Alabama in the 1930s. The plot involves both elements of the coming-of-age of three children, as well as the false accusation of an African-American man and the subsequent trial. To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print and has been adapted into a 1962 motion picture starring Gregory Peck as family patriarch Atticus Finch, as well as a 2018 play adapted for the Broadway stage by Aaron Sorkin. The themes of racial injustice keep the story relevant today. Here are 100 books everyone should read before they die.
Another beloved children’s book, reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web has been a literary rite of passage for young people since it was published in 1952. Though it does have illustrations, thanks to Garth Williams, it is a novel with different chapters, ideal for advancing early readers. The plot centers on a pig named Wilbur who befriends a spider named Charlotte and their gang of barnyard colleagues. Unfortunately for Wilbur, he is in danger of being turned into bacon, so Charlotte helps convince the farmer to save him via messages written on her web, including “Some Pig.” The book has been adapted into several other versions, including an animated feature in 1973 and a live-action movie in 2006. With 337,948 checkouts, it is the sixth most-borrowed book in NYPL history.
If this list is any indication, New Yorkers are fans of children’s books and dystopian fiction. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book Fahrenheit 451is another example of this genre and features a future version of American society in the year 1999 where books are banned and then burned when they are found. The book contains three sections: “The Hearth and the Salamander,” “The Sieve and the Sand” and “Burning Bright.” Though some claim that the novel has not aged well, it has been checked out 316,404 times, making it the seventh most-borrowed book in NYPL history, potentially thanks to it being required reading for many students.
How To Win Friends and Influence People
Though self-help is now a popular genre of nonfiction, this wasn’t always the case. Originally published in 1936, How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is one of the best-selling books of all time, with more than 30 million copies sold. People have turned to Carnegie’s down-home, simply written advice for decades now in order to progress in their career. According to Carnegie, “about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due…to personality and the ability to lead people,” so it makes sense that people wanted to improve their skills in this area. Several well-known people have used this book and Carnegie’s advice—to some very different conclusions. For example, Warren Buffet took the course that accompanies this book when he was 20 years old and Charles Manson read the book in prison and used the tactics he learned to manipulate the members of his cult in the late 1960s. With 284,524 checkouts, it’s the eighth most-borrowed book in NYPL history. Here are 7 other self-help books for people who can’t stand self-help books.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The first in J.K. Rowling’s incredibly successful series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone introduced the world to everyone’s favorite boy wizard. The book was first published in the United Kingdom in 1997 as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before being released in the United States the following year under the updated title. More than a children’s book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was—and remains—a cultural phenomenon, thanks to multiple sequels to the book, a series of live-action motion pictures and even theme parks in the United States, Japan, and England. It is the most recently published book on the NYPL’s list, racking up 231,022 checkouts in just over 20 years, making it the ninth most-borrowed book in the library’s history. Pay attention to these 15 tiny details you may have missed the first time you read the Harry Potter series.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Another beloved children’s book, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been entertaining children since 1969. It tells the story of a little caterpillar who hatches from an egg and is ravenous—eating all sorts of foods over the course of a week and ends up in a very different place than where he started. Similar to The Snowy Day, The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s illustrations are in collage form and are accentuated by holes the caterpillar has “eaten” in the pages throughout the book, making it an interactive experience for children. It’s not only a favorite among children: physicians and public health experts also use the book as a learning tool for promoting healthy eating. With 189,550 checkouts it’s the tenth most-borrowed book in the NYPL’s history. Looking for more to read? Here are the 25 best children’s books ever written.