What the DC area read in 2021

Books had a banner year during the pandemic, as people found themselves spending more time at home. In 2021, readers in the D.C. area once again found comfort, entertainment and explanation among the pages of a book.

Readers in the area have always enjoyed getting lost in works of fiction, but this year some of the books that came out have centered on a pandemic, Mark Laframboise, senior book buyer at Politics and Prose in D.C., said.

For example, Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” takes place in a Minneapolis bookstore from November 2019 to November 2020, which encompassed the pandemic and the protests after the killing of George Floyd and the presidential election.

Gary Shteyngart’s “Our Country Friends,” which came out in November, is about a group of friends holed up in some bungalows in Upstate New York as they try to wait out the pandemic.

Erdrich and Shteyngart are established authors whose books often do well, but Laframboise said this year had spawned a trend of books set in 2020, which have been extremely popular.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, library patrons were also reading about apocalyptic topics.

“There was definitely an uptick. We saw an interest in people looking for disaster films and pandemic novels … Like what if the Earth gets taken over by a horrible disease? And we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of grim reading,'” Felicity Brown, the collection manager for Montgomery County Public Libraries, said.

Herbal, healing and healthy-living books also saw growth in 2021, according to market research company NPD, which puts out BookScan that tracks print book sales. Since 2019, the already popular “The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine” by Andrew Chevallier saw unit sales grow by 468%, especially in geographic areas with low vaccination rates, according to a news release.

And remember all the banana breads people were baking in 2020? Well, the baking craze is still going strong, with sales of baking cookbooks this year 42% higher than they were last year, according to NPD.

While some people were baking bread or learning a new skill, Laframboise said he saw a resurgence in popularity of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

“I think people were kind of crossing it off their to-do list. ‘I want to read this before I die, and then now I have the time.’ So, I thought that was peculiar. Probably went up about five times normal,” Laframboise said.

The best and the popular

One book Politics and Prose has been having trouble keeping in stock is David Graeber and David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything.”

“It’s been so popular, I think nationwide that the publisher is out of stock, and we’re all waiting for them to go back and have more printed,” Laframboise said.

One of the ways D.C.-area librarians keep up with what people are reading happens at the information or reference desk.

“People come up and all of a sudden, one person will ask for a title. It’ll be kind of unique. And then the next week, three people ask for it. And then all of a sudden, you have 25 people asking for it,” Brown said.


Here’s a list of the most popular books in the area in 2021.


One of the reasons for a book’s rise in popularity could be an interview about the book or author, the book was picked up on social media, or it appeared on a list.

“What we actually do is we have additional copies that we lease from one of our vendors, and we put them into circulation to help bring our holds ratios down so that people don’t have to wait as long to get their hands on these hot titles. So we’ll get another extra 200 copies of the hottest title and put them into circulation for as long as there’s demand,” Brown said.

Most public libraries maintain a popular materials collection.

“We definitely listen to our customers, and we try to, as much as possible, to accommodate what they’re looking for,” Blane Halliday, director for Collection Strategies for Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, said.

For example, books that have been extremely popular at Politics and Prose are actor Stanley Tucci’s “Taste” and “The 1619 Project” book, which Laframboise said has been long-anticipated and people had reserved their copies months before it was even published. A recent catalog search of these titles in area libraries indicated that despite several copies, their demand is high and many people have put them on hold.

Around this time of the year, book reviewers and critics make their lists of the best books of the year. (Here are the best books of 2021 according to The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and Barnes and Noble.) But what’s best and popular are not always the same thing.

Brown said it’s hard to say what’s considered best. “It depends on what you like and what your genre is.”

Halliday agrees, saying that not only are people’s tastes different, but their expectations are, as well.

“I don’t read a lot of fiction. I read mostly nonfiction. And what I expect from a book versus what you expect or John Doe expects are going to be completely different,” Halliday said.

Laframboise said staff at the bookstore, when asked for recommendations, always ask about the interests of the person the book is for.

“If somebody comes up to me and says, ‘What can I buy, what books should I buy for my uncle who doesn’t read books?’ I say, well, maybe don’t buy him a book, maybe buy him something else,” Laframboise said. You want to put the right book in the person’s hand, not just the most popular one, he said.

Demand for electronic materials rise.

In Arlington, Virginia, libraries, there’s been a continued increase in the circulation of their eAudio collection, which are downloadable audiobooks.

In 2019, eAudio materials circulated 211,841 times. In 2020, it was 270,305; and in 2021, it was 310,378. Henrik Sundqvist, Arlington Public Library spokesman, said this shows sustained gains and continued growth.

“Considering more people are working from home and no longer have long commutes, the strong increase we’re seeing is great,” Sundqvist said. Arlington libraries have more than 15,000 eAudio titles in their collection.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders were in place in many jurisdictions, Prince George’s County libraries were still open, albeit online. As a result, Halliday said there was an upswing in digital demand during that time.

“Prior to the pandemic and March 2020, … roughly 70% of what we were circulating was physical versus 30% digital. And then as soon as everything shut down in March of 2020, that completely flipped-flopped,” Halliday said. Currently, digital demand has remained strong and it’s a 50-50 split between digital and print in Prince George’s County libraries.

Montgomery County libraries also saw an increase in e-book requests, and the library system’s new catalog has made it even more accessible to find electronic materials, Brown said.


Here are some of the most popular circulated books in your local library.

Arlington Public Library

Adult fiction (print)

  • “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
  • “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig
  • “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah

Adult nonfiction (print)

  • “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
  • “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
  • “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle

Children’s fiction (print)

The top three titles were all by author Mo Willems.

  • “Should I Share My Ice Cream?”
  • “I Love My New Toy!”
  • “I Will Take a Nap!”

Children’s nonfiction titles (print)

  • “Saving Animal Babies” by Amy Shields
  • “The Underground Abductor” by Nathan Hale
  • “Blades of Freedom” by Nathan Hale

Prince George’s County

Juvenile fiction (e-book)

  • “Mothering Heights,” Dog Man Series, Book 10 by Dav Pilkey
  • “Claudia and the New Girl,” The Baby-Sitters Club Graphix Series, Book 9, by Ann M. Martin
  • “Karen’s Worst Day,” Baby-Sitters Little Sister Graphic Novel Series, Book 3 by Ann M. Martin
  • “In Your Face!” Big Nate Series, Book 24, by Lincoln Peirce
  • “The Dark Secret,” Wings of Fire Graphic Novel Series, Book 4 by Tui T. Sutherland

Juvenile fiction (print)

  • “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Adventure” by Jeff Kinney
  • “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Wrecking Ball” by Jeff Kinney
  • “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End” by Jeff Kinney
  • “Tales from a Not-So-Best friend Forever” by Rachel Renee Russell
  • “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories” by Jeff Kinney

Juvenile nonfiction (e-book and print)

Books on Minecraft topped the print and e-book lists. “What Are Phobias” by Therese M. Shea was among the top 5 for e-books, and “Guts” by Raina Telgemeier was among the top books for print.

Adult fiction (e-book)

  • “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah
  • “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir
  • “The Last Thing He Told Me” by Laura Dave
  • “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry
  • “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Adult fiction (print)

  • “It’s Not All Downhill from Here” by Terry McMillan
  • “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig
  • “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
  • “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
  • “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah

Adult nonfiction (e-book)

  • “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder
  • “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing” by Oprah Winfrey
  • “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” by Adam Grant
  • “The Art of Taking It Easy: How to Cope with Bears, Traffic and the Rest of Life’s Stressors” by Brian King
  • “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner

Adult nonfiction (print)

  • “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
  • “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
  • “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
  • “The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay
  • “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson

Montgomery County

Nonfiction

  • “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner
  • “The Codebreaker” by Walter Isaacson
  • “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
  • “The Premonition, A Pandemic Story” by Michael Lewis
  • “Somebody’s Daughter” by Ashley C. Ford
  • “Beautiful Country” by Qian Julie Wang
  • “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty” by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

Fiction

  • “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry
  • “The Last Thing He Told Me” by Laura Dave
  • “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
  • “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Top kids

Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” series and Stephan Pastis’ “Timmy Failure” series were popular children’s books, as well as “Graveyard Shakes” by Laura Terry.

D.C.

You can find the full list here, including electronic materials.

Fiction

  • “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
  • “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig
  • “Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
  • “Transcendent Kingdom” by Yaa Gyasi
  • “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

Nonfiction

  • “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson
  • “A Promised Land” by Barack Obama
  • “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle
  • “Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” by Robert Kolker
  • “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed” by Lori Gottlieb

MORE YEAR-END STORIES

Abigail Constantino

Abigail Constantino started her journalism career writing for a local newspaper in Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a graduate of American University and The George Washington University.

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