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What Flagstaff's reading during the pandemic

What Flagstaff's reading during the pandemic


You are what you read, as that literary wag Oscar Wilde once cracked wise.

Well, maybe not. That comes off as too reductive, as simplistic and random as claiming that the world can be divided into two groups, broccoli eaters and non-broccoli eaters. But one’s reading diet can, in many cases, give a glimpse into the psyche, reflect the times we’re living in and the concerns that consume our thoughts.

It’s not just what we’re reading these days in Flagstaff and Coconino County, but also the manner in which we partake that is interesting to note, too. Format and form. E-reader and escapist fiction. Dead-tree pulp and serious nonfiction. Audio YA fare and graphic novels. All of that says something about not just the media we consume but the evolving way we consume it.

And so it is that we take a peek behind the (virtual, these days) checkout desk at the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library to see what are the most popular titles requested during the coronavirus pandemic, roughly March through September.

Is it as eclectic as always, given the diversity of thought and demographics in northern Arizona, or have distinct new patterns emerged given the upheaval in our lives?

Sorting through it all for us is Jamie Paul, a library specialist and social media guru, who ran the numbers and compiled a quarantine list in many categories, DVDs included.

Bear in mind, though, that because the library has remained closed to browsers for the past six months, and patrons now have to call and reserve physical books and pick them up curbside, the much-easier electronic book borrowing, already seen as the wave of the future, has spiked. The library recently joined the Libby consortium, with a handful of other libraries in the state, and now has electronic access to more than 40,000 additional titles in easily downloadable fashion.

And what of content?

People definitely are seeking escapism in a fantasy, sci-fi or mainstream novel, but there also was a marked increase in check outs having to do with current affairs — specifically books examining systemic racism to a wider (i.e., predominantly white) audience.

The complete lists are detailed adjacent in several sidebars. In this space, with Paul’s assistance, we’ll take a look at the overall trends for pandemic reading.

The real eye-popping findings:

• Four of the top 10 adult books (physical books, that is) checked out were graphic novels — attesting to the mainstreaming of a once-shunted format.

• Topping the list of adult books checked out (both electronic and physical, and finishing second in audio downloads) was the 2018 novel, “Where the Crawdad Sings,” a novel by Delia Owens that follows the intertwined stories of a young girl’s coming of age and a murder investigation in a fictional North Carolina coastal town in the 1960s. No surprise there; the novel remains a New York Times best-seller after getting the celebrity endorsement from the likes of Reese Witherspoon.

• There was a clean sweep for manga, 10-for-10, in Young Adult books (physical). And it proved no surprise that the smash hit novel (made into a movie) “The Hate U Give,” an examination of race and class at an elite private school set against the backdrop of a police shooting of a young Black man, topped the YA e-book list and was the runner-up YA audio book.

• Many of the top choices were not new titles from 2020. “Crawdads,” Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” Tara Westover’s memoir of class and religious struggle in survivalist Idaho, “Educated,” were all released in 2018, and “Hate” in 2017. And the top picture book was Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus,” from 2003.

What does it all mean?

Paul had several takeaways.

First, the focus on racial understanding, a response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others that led to mass protests.

“I’d say anti-racism is showing up big,” Paul said. “We also had requests for more anti-racist programming in our fall adult programming survey.”

Nonfiction and fictional titles concerning racism, either explicitly or thematically, dominated the adult lists. Among the books making the lists: “How to Be an Antiracist;” “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness;” “So You Want to Talk About Race;” “The Hate U Give;” and, going way back, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Antiracism books, Paul said, shows “a thirst for information about social issues and problems.” She also noted that two other titles on the library list explored similar racial themes: “The Water Dancer,” a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates, best-selling essayist of “Between the World and Me;” and “100 Bullets,” a graphic novel series about revenge murders presented as justifiable to right social wrongs, that made the adult (physical) book list.

Cracking the YA list was “The Sun Is Also a Star,” a 2016 novel by Nicola Yoon that is a hybrid love story and immigration tale.

Not every offering was so freighted with social significance. Given the harsh reality of the pandemic, escapism was a big trend.

“All of the YA books are manga, which is for sure escapism for the teens,” Paul said, “and (four) of the titles for adults were graphic novel, which speaks to the same thing, I think.”

In the juvenile category, too, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” topped both the e-book and audio lists, not a surprise since the Potter books were read aloud this spring in the popular library-sponsored Facebook series, “Goodnight, Flagstaff.”

Another reason for the whopping 133 checkouts of the “Sorcerer’s Stone” audio book: no waiting on a hold list for it.

“Libby allowed limitless checkouts without any holds on that title this summer,” Paul said. “So it would appear that the numbers for digital checkouts (34 for “Sorcerer’s Stone”) are being limited by access and availability, and not by demand, which is cool to know as well. I mean, we already know that about high circulating paper books with long hold lists.”

Libby, formerly, allows readers to use books across devices, including kindle, and permits downloads for offline access. Its audio component syncs with a Bluetooth connection and can be used with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

“Libby just purchased an older company, RB Digital, so now all of our audio ebooks and ebooks will be available to Libby and Hoopla (an existing digital resource for all media) rather than having a third login,” she said. “I’m glad to know that we are increasing access to ebooks and audio ebooks, because there does appear to be a demand, which could be partially COVID-related, of course.”

Whatever the format, home-bound Flagstaffians have had noses buried in books the past six months.

“I think there are a lot of very dedicated readers of all ages in Flag and the broader county, for sure,” Paul said. “I’d say we’re a pretty bookish lot, but libraries do sort of draw those types.”


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Feature Writer

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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