The most borrowed book of all — The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack — is an illustrated account of a black child’s encounter with snow. The list also features Cat in the Hat, Charlotte’s Web and To Kill a Mocking Bird.
The joys of childhood and fantasy, the faultlines of bigotry and the contours of totalitarianism — these are the themes of the 10 most issued books in the 125-year history of the New York Public library. Among the 10 titles, the greatest number are children’s books. The most borrowed book of all — The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack — is an illustrated account of a black child’s encounter with snow. The list also features Cat in the Hat, Charlotte’s Web and To Kill a Mocking Bird. Among more recent publications, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (The Philosopher’s Stone outside the US) has made the list. Outside children’s literature, though, the titles are less full of hope and joy: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984 are both dystopian tragedies, where knowledge, individuality and curiosity carry a heavy price.
Why do people return, generation after generation, to the stories of their childhood? The life-cycle of the New York Public Library can easily be superimposed on the era of modernity — of a steady deracination of the individual from society. Each generation feels just a little more lonely, more cut-off from those that came before. The stories that have made the list, then, are the ones that have been passed on in the hope that in the absence of a collective culture that stays in families, the books can make children just a little bit like ourselves. Charlotte’s Web is about friendship and loyalty, To Kill a Mocking Bird about the complexity of hatred and the ways to rise above it.
Childhood, then, has endured. But so has despair — the fear of uniformity, of the state and its instruments becoming a leviathan that cannot be resisted. Given the domestic and global political climate, it is easy to believe that Orwell and Bradbury have a particular resonance in our time. But, as the list shows, that is not the case.