WHAT LIBRARY READERS DO READ IN THE UK

My colleague David Owen emails us, UAB’s English Literature Teachers, a juicy article from a Guardian blog: “Library lending figures: which books are most popular?” (https://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2013/feb/08/library-lending-figures-books-most-popular). The subheading cheerfully announces that “James Patterson leads the list of the UK’s most borrowed authors in 2011/12” –I had to think twice and end up using Wikipedia to recall who Patterson is (a US author of thrillers), but that’s my own ignorance.

Mr. Patterson’s books have been borrowed in UK libraries (2011/12) a grand total of 2.4m times. Since the Fifty Shades trilogy, we are told is “not at the top, it’s nowhere”, this means that the library loan list should be contrasted with the best-selling list as there are glaring differences. By the way: “overall, 65 of the authors of the 100 most-borrowed books are men” (I don’t know how this compares with the number of women readers). The article also includes a revealing section about the whole decade 2002-12 and, yes, Patterson is “the UK’s most borrowed author of the decade”, Danielle Steele the British most borrowed author (chart-topper every year between 1992-2012). Predictably, Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare are “the most borrowed pre-20th century classic authors”.

I can’t comment here on the complete table of the top 100 most borrowed books and authors in the UK, so I’ll just copy the top ten:

10th Anniversary, James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Worth Dying for, Lee Child
Miracle Cure, Harlan Coben
Private London, by James Patterson
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Gruffalo (children’s book), Julia Donaldson; illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Caught, Harlan Coben
The Reversal, Michael Connelly
Minding Frankie, Maeve Binchy

+2,000,000: James Patterson
+1,000,000: Daisy Meadows, Julia Donaldson, Nora Roberts, Francesca Simon, Jacqueline Wilson, MC Beaton
+ 500,000 Danielle Steel, Mick Inkpen, Adam Blade

I might read from this list just The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the novel on which the truly great eponymous film was based. I’m not, obviously, a user of UK libraries and I should not criticise the tastes of those who are. The best thing I can do is to infer from this list some trends: a) UK library users are, manifestly, middlebrow readers; b) that an author is borrowed very often does not mean s/he is well liked –it might be even a sign that readers do not like him/her enough to buy his/her books (readers have bought, not borrowed Fifty Shades of Grey); c) English Literature university teachers are very poorly equipped to understand today’s common reader; d) future historians of English Literature will have to make a serious decision about what to do with these data.

These days I’m teaching the Modernist short story to my first year students and I’m making a point of explaining to them that Modernism is just one small corner of the complex map of all reading between 1900-1940. Most educated people read the very authors Woolf attacked (Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy); many less educated readers loved middlebrow authors like Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith or Nancy Mitford (see, for instance, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble); the market for popular fiction, pulp included, was flourishing.

We should not be surprised then that today we also have a multilayered reading territory which the avalanche of data makes, simply, more difficult to ignore. Or not. After all, I can still programme an elective on ‘Contemporary British Fiction’ based on a tiny selection of 6 authors at the most, and safely ignore the rest. Let students fend for themselves. English Literature Teachers (or students), you might object, needn’t know who James Patterson is, much less read Danielle Steele. Nonetheless, I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that we should at least tell students about the multilayered map or territory, for they are themselves (see my previous post) middlebrow readers.

I know that many will reply that this is, rather, ‘Sociology of Reading’, part of, perhaps, Cultural Anthropology or Cultural Studies. Whatever. In the end the question is whether one can make sense of, say, Virginia Woolf, without Arnold Bennett, Agatha Christie or even Sax Rohmer. Perhaps, but only in a limited way. This does not I’ll read James Patterson as soon as I can, for the truth is that I can’t even keep up with the list of Booker Prize winners; it means that, whatever I read and teach I’ll have to bear in mind that common readers do exist and might feel oddly out of place in an English Literature classroom. Whether this is as it should be or not it’s up to you to decide.

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