Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fun with the What Middleton Read Project

Let’s have one more day of lists.  Let’s mess around with the What Middletown Read Project.

Archivists punched in the surviving “circulation records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library from November 5, 1891 through December 3, 1902” (with “one gap from May 28, 1892 to November 5, 1894”), so they cover about ten years, handy for off the cuff math.  The database “documents every book that every library patron borrowed during that period.”

What can we do with it?  First, who was checked out the most?  I calculated the top 20.  I will at this point note that my results are likely full of errors.  The table has rank and total number of transactions – how many times a book by the author was checked out over the ten year period.


1 Horatio Alger   9,230
2 Charles Fosdick   7,394
3 William T. Adams   5,067
4 Martha Finley   4,731
5 Edward Sylvester Ellis   3,038
6 Edward Payson Roe   2,989
7 Louisa May Alcott   2,976
8 F. Marion Crawford    2,119
9 Rosa Carey    1,992
10 Eugenie John    1,821
11 G. A. Henty    1,814
12 Charles King    1,626
13 L. T. Meade    1,588
14 Mary Mapes Dodge    1,517
15 Francis Hodgson Burnett   1,444
16 Clara Burnham    1,418
17 Susan Coolidge    1,316
18 Augusta Evans    1,315
19 Kirk Munroe    1,237
20 Isabella Alden    1,229

The most popular author – by such a margin! – makes me cringe, but what can I do.  Ma femme suggested that people read Alger so avidly because they were trying to learn how to strike it rich and get out of Muncie.

Another caveat: I do not know how any of this correlates with book sales or library use anywhere else in the country. Still,  I did not realize that Alcott, just a few years after her death, was such a popular author, and not just with the Little Women series.  Her single most popular book here is An Old-fashioned Girl.

I looked up enough of the other writers, most of whom I had never heard of, to see that they were fiction writers.  Patrons mostly left the library with novels.  The first poet I found, James Whitcomb Riley, was way down the list at 326 transactions.

What about writers I might have heard of, or even read?


27 Mark Twain 877
39 Charles Dickens 691
40 J. M. Barrie 677
43 Walter Scott 651
52 J. Fenimore Cooper 587
58 W. D. Howells 538
58 Edward Bulwer-Lytton 538
63 Robert Louis Stevenson 516
67 Nathaniel Hawthorne  468
72 George Eliot 462
75 Rudyard Kipling 460
76 Arthur Conan Doyle 454

Note that Peter Pan does not yet exist, and the Muncie library did not own a Sherlock Holmes book.  Doyle’s winner is Rodney Stone.

Twain, Barrie, Howells, Stevenson, Kipling, and Doyle were all alive during the period covered.  Eliot had died only about a decade earlier.  Dickens twenty years, Hawthorne thirty, Scott sixty.  They are mostly contemporary writers, and all fairly recent.  There is nothing like our current Brontë or Jane Austen phenomenon.

Speaking of whom (I will abandon the rankings):  Charlotte Brontë (253), Jane Austen (179), Anne Brontë (28), Emily Brontë (23).  When I write about the decline of Scott and the rise of Austen, this 3.6:1 ratio of Scott to Austen, shows what I mean.

Were the bookish Muncians reading any foreign fiction? Yes.  What?


Jules Verne 392
Henryk Sienkiewicz 374
Ossip Schubin 361
Victor Hugo 318
Alexandre Dumas, Sr. 220
Afolph Streckfuss 185

Schubin wrote “O Thou, My Austria”, what a title; Streckfuss wrote the more promising Castle Hohenwald.  Half of the Dumas is The Count of Monte Cristo.  The library had only one Tolstoy book, Resurrection, his new one in 1899, in English in 1900, checked out 30 times before the data runs out, which is not bad.  Some other figures look peculiar because of timing, or because of the exact books available.  The Thomas Hardy (160) and Henry James (196) selections, for example, are a little odd.   The library apparently had just one book by Tennyson, checked out only 36 times, which feels like an error.

We all know that Herman Melville was an unjustly forgotten author.  The library owned four of his first five books, so no Moby-Dick; they were checked out 51 times.  Omoo alone left the library 38 times.  Melville was not forgotten.  He was remembered as a South Seas travel writer.

Five brave Muncians, though, took the avant-garde Mardi home with them.  Who were these lunatics?  Mary J. Luick, wife of a retired farmer; Norwood Carnes, florist; Lizzie Banks, wife of a night watchman; Catherine Kusick, bookkeeper; and Ohle Gill, nurse.  The patron records have all been linked to census and city directory data.  You can see their age, address, birthplace, and spouse.  And then you can see all of their other books.  Lizzie Banks also checked out 155 books including Felix Holt, Far from the Madding Crowd, Doctor Thorne, and Jane Eyre.

Just for example.  I am have been careful not to pursue this possibility.  This kind of fun should be accompanied by a fellowship.  Please, play with the database and report back.

17 comments:

  1. Alcott and Hodgson Burnett are the only two I have heard of and read from the first list. Interesting that those female authors have had staying power over a hundred years.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post. As usual in the interwebs, one thing links to another. So a search for that Schubin gal led me to discover that wonderful site neglectedbooks dot com where a very intelligent reader has taken the task of fishing for forgotten masterpieces.

    A cursory inspection of his/her 'Gems from the Internet Archive' provided one reason why the very interesting writer Ossip Schubin was discarded by a society obsessed with class and etiquette:
    'When the prosperity of her parental home broke down, Ossip and her sister Marie –in a life of hard work– again created an existence for themselves which seemed pleasant to them … in hotel rooms and in rented little castles, with coachmen and servants.'

    I was also introduced at that site to Leonard Merrick's Cynthia, Dorothy Langley’s Mr. Bremble's Buttons and Wait For Mrs. Willard, and finally Perez Galdos' Historic Episodes series, all books I'm very excited to read in the near future.

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  3. Let us not get carried away with the "books checked out" numbers as being evidence of actual reading habits. Many (or at least some) people check out books but never read them; people may start books and give up, or people may never get around to starting the books. We can never know those statistics. I myself -- and probably you too -- have been "guilty" of checking out a book but not reading it. Perhaps Horatio Alger was more checked out than read. Now you can feel a bit better, can't you?

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  4. Hmm, you got me curious, so I looked up the writers on that list. Most of them wrote children's books (including Alger, by the way; I don't think adults read him). So the data may say more about who used the library, rather than general reading tastes. The exceptions are Fosdick (POW memoirs), Crawford (travel and supernatural), John (a popular German novelist), and Evans (an apologist for the Confederacy). Crawford sparks my interest; he sounds like fun.

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  5. I can see my Sunday slipping down the rabbit hole, here. I do want to put in a good word for Mr. Alger. While I've only read one book by him, so I'm no expert, I think he's much better than his reputation leads us to suspect. He's not rags to riches, but rags to respectable middle class prosperity. I read Ragged Dick in reprint and basically enjoyed it. Not great art, but an entertaining and uplifting read for youngsters.

    I wonder how many of those check-outs are adults, mothers would be my guess, trying to get their sons to read the right books.

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    1. I skipped your comment twice, James, yikes. I will likely never inspect Alger. I suspect "[N]ot great art" is a great kindness.

      If respectability is enough to get out of Muncie, go for respectability.

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  6. Eugenie John is German? I thought I looked her up. Oh well - mentally top that "in translation" list with Eugenie John, please.

    The data unquestionably is about who used the library, although I am not sure why children''s books should not count as part of "general reading taste." But lets not get carried away with not getting carried away. The transaction numbers area a proxy for reading. You have to argue, RT, that Alger was systematically more unread than other authors. Don't attach too much meaning to the specific numbers - the relative numbers, the ratios, that's what you want.

    I am hoping for a huge Ossip Schubin revival. I think your explanation for her decline, humb happ, is awfully generous to the readers of Muncie.

    Dwight has written about some of those Perez Galdos books, I think.

    Thomas, you could actually draw a different lesson from the Alcott and Burnett figures. Rather than having staying power, almost all of the Alcott and Burnett books read by the Muncians have been forgotten. Most of the books for which we remember Burnett had not even been written. I am assuming Little Lord Fauntleroy is still read by someone. But how about A Fair Barbarian or Louisiana big hits in Muncie?

    Crawford has appeared on Wuthering Expectations before, as the author of a ghost story about a haunted bed.

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  7. Ah, well, the list is so skewed to children's books that I would deduce that Muncian grown-ups either didn't read, were infatuated with juvenilia, or got their books elsewhere. Probably the last, I think.

    I hadn't heard of Eugenie John either, but she apparently wrote under the name of E. Marlitt, and was widely read both in German and in translation.

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  8. Perhaps Doug ought to read Alcott's "Hospital Sketches," as that's definitely not children's fare (Battle of Fredericksburg, where she was a nurse.) I'd also say that Jo March managed to have a potent impact on the lives of a great number of girls, then and now, so I would not just dismiss Alcott.

    Or children's books, for that matter. I think a Sendak picture book may weigh a lot heavier in the scales with many an adult than a lot of 900-page monsters penned for adults.

    I want you to know that this lunatic has read "Mardi." Twice. :)

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  9. What a strange response! I never dismissed Alcott, or children's books. I only pointed out that the list was mostly (not all) children's authors, which may indicate that more children than adults were reading those library books.

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  10. Is there a monument to Lizzie Banks in Muncie?

    An interesting project, but a statistician would note a number of confounding elements that make its usefulness limited to this kind of fun.

    I still have, cut-out and stuck in a book somewhere, the weekly list of top 10 fiction bestsellers from a copy of the New York Times Book Review from 15 or so years ago, and it alternates Michael Crichton/John Grisham from 1 to 10.

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  11. Hospital Sketches went out the door 86 times, so as 30 year old books go, pretty good.

    Doug, you have to have the top 20 or something like it to have a base of reference to judge any of the other numbers. I don't really care much about the top 20, either. But I doubt it was so unrepresentative of reading in Muncie. The book section at the Muncie department store was probably not so different, correcting for the newness of their stock. I hope they sold more Tennyson.

    I mean, this isn't the Boston Public Library, it's Muncie, Indiana! Pop. 11,345 in 1890; 20,942 in 1900 - Muncie's growth rates were insane - and a huge chunk of that population was children.

    If someone wanted to work on the adult problem, the data is available, since the patron records are available. The eight patrons who checked out Sartor Resartus were not getting it for their kids. I hope. God bless you, India Linder, who also checked out Milton, Dryden, that Tennyson book I keep harping about, Famous Leaders among Women, Little Women, and A Study of Child-nature from the Kindergarten Standpoint which to my sorrow is not a novel.

    I hope someone from Muncie comes by and answers Scott's question. With "Yes."

    This project has no more confounding elements than you-name-it. Statisticians would just dig in. Who here knows how to do Principal Component Analysis. That would also get at the children vs adult issue.

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  12. Eh, I was just intrigued by the demographics. I certainly used the library more when I was a kid. Well, here's Mary Mapes Dodge herself, in an old game of "Young Folks' Authors." It's interesting to see who was in the juvenile pantheon back then (interesting to me, anyway). http://ullagegroup.com/2012/05/02/childrens-card-games-171/

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  13. I think it's interesting, too. This is just the point when some older authors like Cooper and Scott are transforming into children's authors, in some cases to the lasting harm of their reputations.

    My own library has a James Otis Kaler book, Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus. Ten weeks, that sounds about right.

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  14. "Toby Tyler" was popular for years. Disney even made a movie of it. One of the main characters is a chimp; that probably helped.

    Swift was also often marketed as a children's writer, which is peculiar.

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  15. No Trollope?

    Always underrated.

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  16. Huh, I wonder if I have seen Toby Tyler. It was the kind of thing that appeared on their Sunday night TV show.

    Not much Trollope - just 28 transactions for Anthony and 42 for Frances Eleanor (Anthony's sister-in-law).

    1) The selection is strange, and 2) this is the exact period of the Great Trollope Reputation Crash.

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