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BooksDecember 9, 2020

Stack ’em up: the most-borrowed library books of 2020

woman dances on stacks of books in library
(Photo: Sven Hagolani via Getty Images)

What did we check out during the hellfire year of 2020, and what does it say about us? Tara Ward asks nine libraries around the country.

Covid-19 marked a new chapter for New Zealand libraries. As the physical buildings closed during the first lockdown, libraries around the country saw a dramatic increase in online memberships and borrowing of e-resources. “Saturday 21 March was our busiest ebook day ever,” said Laurinda Thomas, libraries and community spaces manager at Wellington City Libraries. “Other digital reading and listening also blossomed during lockdown, and has continued at levels higher than previous years.”

The pandemic changed what we read, and how we read it. “There was a strong trend towards books and ebooks about current social movements, as well as books and ebooks to help improve people’s wellbeing and resilience,” Thomas said. Auckland Libraries experienced a similar increase in online usage during the August lockdown, with readers opting for lighter, humorous reads. Nelson Libraries told us their readers escaped into crime and thrillers, while Puke Ariki in New Plymouth noticed a shift towards cookbooks and home comforts.

So, what else did we pick up when we locked down? We asked 10 libraries around the country what their most popular books were in 2020, with the hope of finding out what readers turned to during a tough year, and what these choices might say about us as a nation. Spoiler: New Zealand can’t get enough of Lee Child.

(Auckland Libraries notes that the most “popular” books are based on the number of checkouts, which is dependent on the number of copies each library has and the loan duration of that item. They suggest the number of requests on an item is a better indication of a book’s popularity. In both Auckland and Wellington, the most requested book was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, with more than 2000 requests in Auckland alone.

Also, these figures relate to print copies of books, unless otherwise specified. Regardless, we love all books at The Spinoff.)


Oh, sweet Child of mine. When we needed saving, New Zealand readers turned to lone hero Jack Reacher, making Lee Child’s 2019 thriller Blue Moon one of the most-borrowed books in every library we surveyed. Nelson and Whangārei should offer Child a key to their cities, with his novels taking out four of the top five adult fiction rankings there.

Jack Reacher is all of us in 2020 (Photo: Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, in the 2012 movie of the same name)

As well as Child, library users consistently reached for bestselling authors like Jojo Moyes, Michael Connelly, Lucinda Riley, Lesley Pearse and Nora Roberts. The biggest variation was in Wellington, where two of the most borrowed titles were Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winner The Testaments and Sally Rooney’s Normal People. That’s a lot of dystopian suffering and suppressed emotions at once. You OK, Wellington?

Nonfiction – biographies

Three titles were consistently popular in 2020: Michelle Obama’s Becoming, royal insider Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, and Tara Westover’s memoir Educated.

Life as a Casketeer by Francis Tipene was a hit in Dunedin and New Plymouth, Linda Burgess’s brilliant Someone’s Wife made the top five in Wellington, and Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies So That You Can Become Who You Were Meant To Be was a winner in Christchurch. It also topped the secret and unofficial “Unnecessarily Long Book Title 2020” category.

Political books did well, even though it was election year and we were all sick of politicians by August. Jacinda Ardern: The Story Behind An Extraordinary Leader by Michelle Duff was a popular choice in both Auckland and Wellington, while Pull No Punches: Memoir of a Political Survivor by political survivor Judith Collins was one of the most-borrowed books in Whangārei during the past three months.

In Invercargill, Leading Lady: a Life in the Spotlight, the biography of former mayor Eve Poole written by Vivienne Allan, was the most popular nonfiction book (both biography and general). “This is a great effort for a local subject,” said Marianne Foster, manager of Invercargill Libraries.

(Images: Supplied)

Nonfiction – general 

In a year when we stayed at home and worried about our health, it’s no surprise that Bill Bryson’s latest The Body: A Guide for Occupants appeared on several libraries’ top nonfiction lists. Demand for The New Zealand Road Code and Guinness World Records suggests we’re a country of nerds who like to know things, while the popularity of Nadia Lim’s Vegful and Jamie Oliver’s Veg proves that we also like to eat.

In fact, Wellingtonians couldn’t get enough of cookbooks, also turning to Yotam Ottolenghi’s Simple (probably in search of comfort food after hoovering down all that Atwood and Rooney).

We also wanted to learn about our country this year. In Whangārei, Scotty Morrison’s Māori Made Easy was the second most popular nonfiction book, and in Gisborne, Horouta: the history of the Horouta Canoe by Rongowhakaata Halbert was number one. Worth a Detour: Hidden Places and Unusual Destinations Off the Beaten Track was number four in New Plymouth, reflecting the shift to domestic travel in 2020.

Lockdown also gave us time to get in touch with both our emotions and our finances. In Christchurch, readers tried to care less by turning to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, while Wellingtonians wanted to care less but make more money, as per Mary Holm’s Rich Enough? A Laid Back Guide for Every Kiwi. Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor was popular in New Plymouth, reflecting 2020’s rise in DIY investors, while Wellingtonians read a lot of Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell.

(Images: Supplied)


Nerds and wimps ruled supreme in 2020, with numerous titles from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of A Wimpy Kid series cleaning up from north to south. The Harry Potter series, Geronimo Stilton series, Andy Griffiths and David Walliams were also favourites.

Lego, Minecraft, and Pokemon books were the big winners in children’s nonfiction, as well as Guinness World Records. New Zealand authors also featured, with Donovan Bixley’s How Māui Slowed the Sun popular in both Gisborne and Dunedin, Wildlife of Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop a hit in Auckland, and Alison Ballance’s New Zealand’s Great White Sharks: How Science is Revealing Their Secrets making it to number six in New Plymouth.

Ebooks / Online resources

As mentioned, ebooks were the big winner of 2020, with Auckland Libraries reporting 3.2 million online issues from November 2019 to October 2020 (that’s including online audiobooks, ebooks, magazines and videos). Wellington Libraries saw large spikes in online usage during lockdown, with children’s storytime streaming database Story Box Library enjoying a 2000% increase in usage from February to March, and video streaming platform Kanopy a 110% increase in movie views.

Throw in some Brene Brown and Jeffrey Archer, Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and the popular ebook lists look similar to print.

Keep going!