Library Blog

One Last Dash to the Stacks

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

If there is one thing that is certain during uncertain times, especially to Society Library members, it is the value of the company provided by good books. This was abundantly clear during the last few days we were open before closing due to Coronavirus concerns. As the prospects of social distancing and increasing shutdowns loomed larger across the city, members came in to borrow an exceptional number of books. We recently downloaded a list of what was checked out and the variety of material that was borrowed is a fascinating portrait of our members.

While new fiction and mysteries on the lobby shelves comprised a significant portion of checkouts, members headed to the fiction stacks to pull close to 500 novels and story collections during the last few days before we closed.  Predictably, long-time Library favorites, old and new, are well-represented on the list: Mark Twain and PG Wodehouse (7 books each), Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Strout, and Kate Atkinson. Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens all made strong showings, as well. Some members chose to go deep, beyond the canonical works. For example, books by Theodore Dreiser were checked out, but not Sister Carrie, American Tragedy, or Jennie Gerhardt. A few far lesser-known books by Erich Remarque, in addition to All Quiet on the Western Front, were borrowed. No better time to investigate an author's obscure oeuvre than while waiting out a global pandemic, responsibly self-isolating.

We have many insatiable mystery/crime fiction readers in our midst, and they took the chance to stock up. Favorites included Donna Leon, Peter Lovesey, Laura Lippman, Martin Edwards, Rhys Bowen, M.C Beaton, all with four checkouts each. The clear all-around winners, though, were Rex Stout with nine books borrowed, and Agatha Christie with seventeen. If you missed out, we have some Rex Stout two-fers and trilogies in our Cloud Library ebook collection (click here) and several ebooks and audiobook downloads by Agatha Christie (click here).

It is apparent that members were not just seeking distraction or comfort from their reading. Two copies of The Decameron were checked out (the ebook is checked out, as well); three copies of Camus' The Plague are now in members' hands (the ebook is popular, too); two copies of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year were borrowed, and the ebook, just purchased, is checked out. Generally speaking, there seemed to be a run on books about plagues, pandemics, and disasters, with titles like Plagues and Peoples (William H. McNeill); Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Sonia Shah); Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It (Gina Kolata; we also have the ebook); Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (Laura Spinney); Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC (Joseph B. McCormick, Susan Fisher-Hoch), and more appear throughout the list. Five books on 14th-century Black Death were checked out. I also couldn't help but notice that Deep'n as it Come: the 1927 Mississippi River Flood by Pete Daniel was borrowed. Not only is this an excellent book, it is also a compelling, instructive portrait of disaster response on national and local levels. In addition to The Decameron, The Plague, and Journal of the Plague Year, our Cloud Library e-book collection includes two not-to-be-missed American classics set during the 1918 flu pandemic, They Came Like Swallowsby William Maxwell, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. Both come highly recommended, but may leave you a sodden mess. We also have Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist that takes place in the Great Lakes region after a fictional swine flu pandemic has devastated the world. The Cloud Library never closes, so you can borrow these today (or at least place a hold). 

Others seemed to seek instruction or inspiration for this new phase of living with a dose of levity, Jerome K . Jerome 's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: a Book for an Idle Holiday (1890), and more weighty, Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. (No one checked out Jenny Wren's 1891 response to Jerome: Lazy thoughts of a Lazy Girl.) Facing down the likely possibility of closing restaurants, several cookbooks were borrowed by forward-looking, resourceful members. Dozens of scholarly books on European and American history were borrowed, and names like Zizek, Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Simone Weil, and Daniel Boyarin appear frequently on the list of checkouts, along with Aristotle, Ovid, and Cicero. Cozy mysteries and comfort reading are clearly not for everyone.

Over 70 biographies and memoirs covering everything from John Maynard Keynes to Mary Tyler Moore were checked out during our last two days. Also, it seems that members will miss going to the theatre: several collections of plays by Ibsen, Mamet, Tennessee Williams, Pinter, Shaw, Sam Shepard, and others were snatched up during the last day we were open.  In case you were wondering, the oldest book to go home with a member was volume one of an 1857 set called Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English, containing words from the English writers previous to the nineteenth-century which are no longer in use, or are not used in the same sense. And words which are now used only in the provincial dialects.

In the world of the Children's Library, chapter books were the most popular (everything from realistic fiction, mysteries, and classics to science fiction and fantasy), followed very closely by picture books. Like the adults coming in, young readers were not just looking for escape reading. Books like I Feel Better With A Frog In My Throat: History's Strangest Cures, by Carlyn Beccia, Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History, by Bryn Barnard, and Terrible Typhoid Mary: a True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti were among the checkouts. Authors like Joanna Cole, Suzanne Collins, Demi,C Carolyn Keene, Dav Pilkey, and Mo Willems were the most popular with our younger readers. About 26% of the books borrowed during the last three days before we closed were children's and young adult books.

If you couldn't make it to The Society Library, we have a fine selection of ebooks and audiobook downloads available to members in our Cloud Library collection, including many of the authors mentioned above. The latest popular books are often checked out with a waiting list (now, more than ever), but be sure to scroll down the page to find classics, excellent backlist titles from popular authors, mysteries, a shelf of New York Review Books Classics, lectures, Children's and Young Adult books, and much more.  If you have not yet used the Cloud Library, instructions are available here.

We hope to see you all very soon, and that all of you are healthy and safe. 






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