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.
|3||William T. Adams||5,067|
|5||Edward Sylvester Ellis||3,038|
|6||Edward Payson Roe||2,989|
|7||Louisa May Alcott||2,976|
|8||F. Marion Crawford||2,119|
|11||G. A. Henty||1,814|
|13||L. T. Meade||1,588|
|14||Mary Mapes Dodge||1,517|
|15||Francis Hodgson Burnett||1,444|
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?
|40||J. M. Barrie||677|
|52||J. Fenimore Cooper||587|
|58||W. D. Howells||538|
|63||Robert Louis Stevenson||516|
|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?
|Alexandre Dumas, Sr.||220|
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.