Popular fiction tops CPL’s most-read list

By Emily Ornberg

John Milton, Homer and William Shakespeare have nothing on E. L. James and Suzanne Collins.

Chicago Public Library patrons are stepping away from the classics in favor of contemporary fiction, according to the most recent statistics from the City of Chicago Data Portal. Eighteen of the 25 most popular fiction titles at CPL were published in 2012, and only four were published before 2010, the report showed.

Topping the list is Markus Zusak’s 2007 novel, “The Book Thief,” which is the fall selection for CPL’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl: A Novel,” published in June, came in second. E.L. James’ three-part “Fifty Shades” series, all published in 2012, came in third, seventh and eighth. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy, published from 2008 to 2010, took the fourth, fifth and sixth slots.

“This year has been all about ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Fifty Shades,’” said Stephen Sposato, acting director of collection development at CPL. “‘Gone Girl’ has been one of our top requests for months now. We’ve had over a thousand hold requests for it recently, which is pretty rare for us.”

According to Sposato, the CPL rankings are compiled from circulation data that includes both actual book checkouts and hold requests. He attributes the popularity of certain titles to the demographic of CPL cardholders.

“Women’s fiction, African-American fiction—the hipper stuff—they all do really well,” he said. “Then there are other things that don’t necessarily do as well here as they do in other parts of the country. Christian fiction, for example, doesn’t do well. And with political books, it often tends to be pretty blue state, red state in terms of what gets checked out.”

Sposato said he sees a definite correlation between what is in heavy circulation at CPL and events in popular culture. The October release of the film adaptation of author David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas: A Novel,” published in 2004, bumped the book to No. 10 on the most recent New York Times Best Sellers list and No. 15 at CPL. Sposato said he believes the upcoming film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2002 novel, “Life of Pi,” will cause a similar spike.

While there is a connection between which books appear on the New York Times Best Sellers list and what is most requested at public libraries, the popularity of those titles tend to last longer at libraries, according to Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association.

“I think we see that pattern because the numbers are likely to drop from the commercial best-seller lists while readers are still interested in those books,” Sullivan said. “Not everyone is going to purchase a book, but anyone can read one at a library.”

The increasing demand for popular fiction has changed how many libraries purchase books for their collection, according to Sposato. He said he closely watches what is trending on Amazon to predict which titles library patrons will request. Sullivan said large library systems like CPL have formed partnerships with book distributors and publishers to respond to rapid spikes in demand.

“The librarians who are responsible for acquiring the books work very hard to understand the needs and preferences of the community,” Sullivan said. “What’s most of interest to the library is being able to respond to reader requests if at all possible.”