An illustration of a series of mathematical and scientific measuring tools, weighing and measuring piles of books.
An illustration of a series of mathematical and scientific measuring tools, weighing and measuring piles of books.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wisely said. So what has been the story of 2021? One way to tell it is by looking at what we have read, not just individually but collectively.

Here, we draw on data and statistics about books and what you've been reading over the past 12 months to capture something of the essence of the year. Some of it will surprise you, some of it may make you laugh, all of it offers an insight into how we have responded to another difficult and unpredictable year by taking solace between the pages (or recordings) of brilliant books.

233 years of Murder

It’s hard to convey just how popular and ubiquitous Richard Osman’s breakthrough debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, and its follow-up The Man Who Died Twice – both of which follow a cheery, murder mystery-solving set of pensioners – were over the past year, but this little statistic might help: if you listened to every minute of every Thursday Murder Club audiobook purchased in 2021, it would take you a whopping 233 years. That’s more than the lived years of Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron combined!

300% more spirit of adventure

During a year in which your biggest “adventure” in a day was, most likely, walking from your kitchen table (work!) to… your couch (leisure!), readers craved getting as close to a real adventure as possible – which perhaps explains why, in 2021, there was year-on-year increase of 300% in published book titles featuring the word “adventure”. Can you really blame anyone for craving a bit of beyond-your-flat escapism?

12.8 km of growing up

If you took all the copies sold of Marian Keyes’ blisteringly funny novel Grown Ups and lined them up, you’d need… well, a lot of bookshelves. Keyes’ 17th novel, released in 2020, is admittedly quite the doorstopper at 672 pages, but it’s still shifted more than a quarter of a million copies this year – enough that, if you lined them up spine to spine, they’d add up to 12.8 kilometres, or eight miles. As for the best way to sink into Keyes’ warm and witty family saga? A good train journey would do it – ideally something nearer 400, rather than eight, miles.

6,454 entry level positions

The pandemic took away so much of our freedom that we were left with few precious things to occupy our time: reading; TV and movies; cooking; and, er, certain more primal pastimes. You know the one. Which explains why one of 2021’s surprise best-sellers was Kama Sutra: a Position a Day, 365 Days a Year, which sold an impressive 6,454 copies this year. For those doing the maths, that’s 2,355,710 positions. Nice.

67 times we tried to make time

Have you struggled making sense of the concept of time this year? Felt preoccupied, perhaps, in figuring out how to make the most it it? If you answered ‘yes’, you are not alone. The pandemic has made time an increasingly peculiar and baffling concept, which might explain why there were 67 books published in 2021 with “time” in the title: a 43% increase since 2020, and an 88% increase since 2019. There have also been a lot of books with “world” in the title – 84, no less – which isn’t surprising when we’ve been sat in a global crisis for nearly two years.

Crime, with 80% fewer killers

At bookstores across the UK, crime, mysteries and thrillers have continued to lead the way in terms of sales. Aside from the sheer pleasure of the story, there is also an odd comfort we get from books in this genre, which take our fears and solve them, giving us a sense the world is somehow manageable.

Yet, there was a slight change in the tone of crime novels over the last two years: since 2019, there has been an 80% year-on-year decrease in the word “killer” in book titles. Perhaps, with the pandemic giving an unwelcome sense of danger to everyday life, it makes sense our taste has softened somewhat to prefer more in the burgeoning “cosy crime” genre, which is being led – to come full-circle – by Richard Osman’s hugely popular Thursday Murder Club novels.

63% more historic secrets thanks to TikTok

Donna Tartt's The Secret History may be approaching its 30th birthday, but it retains an appeal as youthful as its adolescent characters. The dark college drama has been entertaining a new audience thanks to TikTok over the past year, witnessing a 133% year-on-year sales increase between 2020 and 2021. The hashtag #thesecrethistory has clocked up 50.5 million views on the social media platform, with users uploading videos of their devotedly annotated copies. 

What did you think of this article? Email and let us know.

Image: Rebecca Hendin for Penguin


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