New York Public Library's 10 most checked-out books of all time

The most popular books of the past 125 years, and where to get them.

a hand holding a stack of books
  • New York Public library is celebrating its 125th birthday in 2020. With over 90 locations across New York City's boroughs, it is the nation's largest public library system.
  • Based on circulation data, popularity, trends, and other criteria dating back to 1895, these books are considered the library's most checked-out titles of all time.
  • "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats was checked out 485,583 times and takes the top spot, but one librarian's hatred of another book may have robbed it of the crown.

This year marks the 125th birthday of the New York Public Library. Millions of books have been borrowed from the library's numerous branches around the city since 1895, but some timeless classics have been thumbed through and enjoyed more than others. For its quasquicentennial celebration, the library has shared a list of the ten books that card holders just couldn't get enough of.

"The books on this list have transcended generations and, much like the Library itself, are as relevant today as they were when they first arrived," said NYPL President Anthony W. Marx in a statement. "This list tells us something about New Yorkers over the last 125 years — what moves them, what excites them, what stands the test of time."

Determining which books were the most popular wasn't as simple as checking a computer file. A team of experts reviewed checkout and circulation data, reading trends, the length of the books, the length of time they have been in print and in the catalog, school lists, and the awards and special recognitions that the books have received.

You should find as many ways as you can to support your local library. Add these books to your borrow list now, or if you can't stand the wait, buy a copy of your own.

"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats

Published in 1962, this Caldecott Award-winning children's book tells the story of a Black boy named Peter exploring his city after the first snowfall of the season. Keats' book has since been translated into 10 different languages, has appeared on postage stamps, and has been adapted into an animated Christmas special. It tops the list with 485,583 checkouts.

Limited edition NYPL library cards featuring Keats' cover illustration are now available for eligible residents.

"The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss

In the number two spot with 469,650 checkouts is Dr. Seuss's iconic book about a tall feline who talks and visits two children on a rainy day while their mother is away. Originally published in 1957, the book has spawned animated and live-action film adaptations, games, theme park rides, and lots of merchandise and licensed apparel. You can now read about Thing One and Thing Two in 17 languages.

"1984" by George Orwell

Published in 1949, this novel (set in the imagined 1984 of the future) has become synonymous with the idea of a dystopian society. Checked out 441,770 times from New York Public Library, Orwell's book is a staple in classrooms and widely considered one of the most influential books of all time.

"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak

This picture book from 1963 was written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. After misbehaving and being sent to bed without dinner, Max is transported to a jungle with other "wild things." He becomes their king but eventually misses his family and returns home. There are only 388 words in the book, but the great story and even greater artwork inspired parents and young readers to check the book out 436,016 times in New York.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Another staple on reading lists around the country, this Pulitzer Prize winning book by Harper Lee has been seen as both a masterpiece and as a text worth banning. Dealing with themes of racial injustice and classism, the book is set in a small town in Alabama where a Black man has been falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. NYPL patrons have read the story of Scout, Atticus, Tom Robinson, and Boo Radley 422,912 times since it was published in 1960.

"Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White

An artistic spider and an exceptional pig navigate the harsh realities of farm life and of mortality in this 1952 novel by E.B. White. If you haven't read the book, chances are you've seen the animated film that was released 21 years later in 1973. Around 337,948 readers have picked this one up so far, so maybe it's time for you to join them in the adventure.

"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury

Burning books is bad, but reading a classic novel about burning books is good. This highly awarded title was first published in 1953 and has stood the test of time, as more young readers discover it in school and older readers revisit its McCarthy era themes of censorship and freedom of thought. "Fahrenheit 451" has been checked out 316,404 times, according to NYPL.

"How to Win Friends & Influence People" by Dale Carnegie

One of the best-selling self-help titles of all time, this book by Dale Carnegie was published way back in 1936. Friend seekers are apparently still finding wisdom in its pages, because it has been borrowed from the library system over 284,524 times. What advice does Carnegie give? You'll have to grab a copy to find out.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling

The first of seven books in the wildly successful series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (née Philosopher's Stone) is still J.K. Rowling's best-selling work, so the fact that it has been checked out 231,022 times is not surprising. Overall, the series has sold over 500 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 80 languages.

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle

At only 22 pages long, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is the shortest book on the list but perhaps the most vibrant. Eric Carle's illustrations of a caterpillar and its delicious environment have crawled out of the library at least 189,550 times in New York and millions more at other libraries and bookstores around the world. If you don't already own it, grab a copy now.

Honorable Mention: "Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown

There was one really interested asterisk to the NYPL list that is worth sharing. It turns out, the personal tastes of one librarian kept the 1947 book "Goodnight Moon" from appearing on library shelves for nearly three decades, which undoubtedly skewed its circulation numbers. The library explains:

By all measures, this book should be a top checkout (in fact, it might be the top checkout) if not for an odd piece of history: extremely influential New York Public Library children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore hated "Goodnight Moon" when it first came out. As a result, the Library didn't carry it until 1972.

When you buy something through a link in this article Big Think earns a small affiliate commission. Thank you for supporting our team's work.

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