Mirror, mirror on the wall, which city is the most literate of all?
Minneapolis, said a study released last year by Central Connecticut State University that ranked St. Paul favorably, too.
But when readers from the state that spawned F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis go to the library, they tend to choose bestselling suspense novels over the lofty classics, according to Twin Cities library logs.
In hopeful anticipation of Minnesota’s (very short) beach reading season, MinnPost asked the Hennepin County, Ramsey County and St. Paul libraries which adult print books metro area residents checked out most in the last few months.
If these records are any indication, patrons at Hennepin and Ramsey County libraries are crazy about Stephanie Plum, a fictional woman who became a bounty hunter after losing her job as a lingerie buyer. More than any other book, they checked out "Tricky Twenty-Two: A Stephanie Plum novel," the tale of murder, a frat house and a bail bondsman cousin named Vinnie.
The thriller is one of more than 20 in prolific author Janet Evanovich’s series about a woman who becomes a bounty hunter after losing her job as a lingerie buyer. It was checked out 1,480 times in Hennepin County between February and April and 233 times in Ramsey County.
It’s typical to see thrillers at the top of circulation lists, said Mary Moran, a librarian at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville. She speculated they’re popular because people want a book that hooks them quickly and keeps them interested throughout — and because they know the plot twists will be neatly tied up in the end.
“These authors are kind of like a brand, when you (read) a James Patterson book you have a pretty good idea of what it's going to be like,” she said.
Meanwhile in St. Paul — the city with poetry stamped into its streets — Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” was the most checked-out book. Patrons of St. Paul Public Library checked out the book, which follows some of the characters from Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” 20 years after that book was set, 190 times.
But back to thrillers.
In Hennepin County, the second most circulated title was “Rogue Lawyer,” a new John Grisham legal thriller about a gun-toting, bourbon-drinking attorney who is “On the right side of the law. Sort of.” The book was checked out 1,353 times.
In Ramsey County, second place with 222 checkouts went to “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller about a woman who investigates the disappearance of a woman she watched from the window of a train. “The Girl on the Train” was also the St. Paul Library’s second most checked-out book in this time period, with a circulation of 159.
The only non-fiction book to make the top five in any of the three library systems was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ national book award winner “Between the World and Me,” a letter to the author’s son about being black in the U.S.
As far as local love goes, “The Survivor,” which was among the top five in Ramsey and Hennepin Counties has ties to the Twin Cities, insofar as it was started by St. Paulite Vince Flynn, who died in 2013. It was finished posthumously by Kyle Mills. No other local authors had titles in the top five in any of the three systems, but "Ordinary Grace," by St. Paul's own William Kent Krueger was in the top 20 for circulation in Ramsey County libraries and was among the most requested books in Hennepin County libraries last year. Set in Minnesota, the novel is about a 13-year-old boy who, when death strikes his town, "finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years,” according to the author’s website.
Librarians closely monitor books’ popularity to make sure there are enough copies in circulation when books become big hits.
Usually, that’s somewhat predictable, based on an author’s past popularity and the buzz surrounding a book, Moran said.
But not always.
“There's always titles that catch everyone by surprise. Always,” said Susan Carr, a librarian in Hennepin County’s Library Collection Management Services.
For instance, Carr said she’s surprised by the ongoing popularity of Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See,” a 2014 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction last year. It's about blind French girl and a German orphan whose stories become intertwined during World War II.
“It's really interesting to me how WWII nonfiction and fiction is so hot,” she said.
Both Carr and Moran cited Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and erotica novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” as unforeseen library blockbusters.
The library has long stocked erotica, Carr said, but it’s not generally a mainstream thing.
“All of a sudden that one erotica title caught everyone's attention,” she said, adding that the surprise of seeing which books catch readers’ fancy is what’s fun about her job.
“It’s the reading public that's creating the demand for something that might not have been on anybody's radar,” Carr said.
Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”