Sunday, February 12, 2012

What Middletown Read, 1891-1902: Horatio Alger, not Herman Melville

The linguistics site LanguageHat reports on "What Middletown Read", an online project at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana:

"What Middletown Read is a database and search engine built upon the circulation records of the Muncie (Indiana) Public Library from November 5, 1891 through December 3, 1902. It documents every book that every library patron borrowed during that period, with the exception of one gap from May 28, 1892 to November 5, 1894." (The use of "Middletown" for Muncie is a result of Robert and Helen Lynd's famous sociological studies of the city: Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 1929, and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, 1937.)

There is a recent Slate article by John Plotz -- who after describing himself as wanting "to read like the dead" -- used What Middletown Read to try to recreate something of the life of Louis Bloom ("Born in Muncie, Ind. in 1879, ... died in San Francisco in 1936 a government engineer"). Plotz went so far as to "read, or at least to sample, all 291 books Louis Bloom had checked out." The article goes on in some detail about the information that can be obtained by the website's database:

The website’s deliberately open architecture has made it easy for data hounds, scholarly and otherwise, to jump in. Douglas Galbi, for example recently analyzed the median date of publication of the database’s 20 most popular books: 1878. Hence, he pointed out, these books were probably between 13 and 24 years old when read, far older than the average book checked out nowadays.*

Galbi also pointed out Middletown readers’ predilection for government publications: The 1892 Report of the tests of metals and other materials for industrial purposes … had 107 recorded borrowers — Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, by contrast, clocked 28. ...

Of the 4,008 active patrons, all but 185 had borrowed at least one novel.

Who were they reading? Herman Melville barely registered (68 loans; the library did not even own Moby-Dick), Charles Dickens (587) and James Fenimore Cooper (691) did surprisingly poorly given their 19th-century reputations. Twain was a solid shower (877). When it came to authors I truly admire, only Louisa May Alcott (2,962) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (1,462) cracked the top 15, which is instead filled out with the syrupy Rosa Carey (1,922) and run-of-the-mill Hardy Boys forerunners like Oliver Optic (5,208) and Charles Fosdick (7,399).

I formulated research questions: Can you make any demographic generalizations about Mark Twain’s readers? Well, none of Muncie’s 15 known African-American patrons (yes, that’s 15, among at least 739 African-American residents — now there’s a research question) ever borrowed a Twain book.

Well, this should be comforting news for Stephen King and his future literary estate -- not to put too fine a comparison on it, but as the Charles Dckens of the 20th century King is likely more checked out than Dickens ever was in his day at the Muncie library.

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