What Toronto Read in 2020

December 11, 2020 | Wendy B.

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  1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  2. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
  3. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  4. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  5. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  6. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  7. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  8. Untamed by Glennon Doyle
  9. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  10. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett


Looking at the most popular library books of 2020, you can't help but notice what a strange year it's been. 

The coronavirus pandemic caused several changes for libraries. Our branches were closed for three months, from March until June. Many publishers delayed releasing new books until late 2020 or even 2021. At the same time, more of you were borrowing digital books and audiobooks than ever before. Digital borrowing increased more than 30% over last year.

Together, those factors led to an unusual Top 10 list. To come up with it, we counted all the print books, ebooks and audiobooks that you borrowed up until the end of November. Then, to see what you were planning to borrow, we added in all the holds that were active at that time. 

Here's what we found:


Publishing delays 

Four of this year's top 10 books were also on last year's list: Becoming, Where the Crawdads Sing, The Testaments and Normal People. This is partly because they were immensely popular books. Michelle Obama's memoir is seeing yet another spike in interest now that her husband's new memoir, A Promised Land, has come out. Normal People got a boost from this spring's popular TV series based on the novel. 

But it's also because many new books that were supposed to come out in the spring were delayed by several months. Some 2020 books made it onto the list: American Dirt came out in January to mingled acclaim and controversy. Glennon Doyle's memoir, Untamed, was released just days before the first lockdown in March. Others, like The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, were released a little too late to make it into the top 10 this year. We expect to see them on the list next year.


The subtle art of lending audiobooks

Four books are on this list because of their popularity in audio form: Talking to Strangers, Atomic Habits, The Dutch House, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In each case, there are good reasons for this popularity. Talking to Strangers is an innovative audiobook similar in style to Malcolm Gladwell's popular podcast, Revisionist History. Audiobooks about productivity, like Atomic Habits, are often popular — possibly because listening to an audiobook while you do other things is itself a productivity hack. The Dutch House, nominated for a Pulitzer, was popular in all formats — but the audiobook, narrated by actor Tom Hanks, was even more so.

One of the more surprising titles on the list (it came out in 2016! What the [email protected]#?), The Subtle Art owes its huge popularity to a quirk in eaudiobook lending. Some audiobook licenses are so expensive for public libraries that we can't buy them at all, while others are available by subscription for unlimited downloads with no holds or waitlists. These "always-available" titles often go out like hotcakes. Manson's sensible-yet-sweary self-help book was always-available for much of the last year. And — while sweary self-help has been a trendy genre for a few years now — it's not surprising that the title resonated with readers in 2020.


eBooks: behind the scenes

Some of the most interesting library stories of 2020 don't show up on this list. If we only looked at ebooks, instead of all formats, you would see how many of Toronto's most popular books this year were related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to be an Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi were among the top titles in that format.

This isn't surprising in itself, but it does reveal another little-known fact about how libraries work: we pay attention to what you're looking for, and try to meet demand as much as possible. We were closed in May, when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and protests erupted all over the world. But librarians were still working. As Torontonians scoured the library catalogue for books on race, policing and social justice, our ebook collections specialist was scrambling to meet demand. With help from some publishers who offered special pricing, she was able to keep waitlists within reasonable limits, without going over budget. The result: a huge surge in borrowing for these titles.


Top kids' books

A handful of popular series dominate the world of children's books. 88 out of the top 100 kids' books this year are by one of the following nine authors, listed in approximate order of popularity:

  1. Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
  2. Raina Telgemeier, Guts, Smile, Drama, Baby Sitter's Club graphic novels
  3. Lincoln Pierce, Big Nate
  4. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter
  5. Dav Pilkey, Dog Man
  6. Mo Willems, Elephant and Piggie
  7. "Geronimo Stilton", Geronimo Stilton
  8. Kazu Kibuishi, Amulet
  9. Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and others


How did 2020 affect your reading habits? Let us know in the comments!