There were times last year when Amy Cookson was in the mood for a book that was serious and challenging. She read, for instance, “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett, a novel that chronicles a Black family in Louisiana beginning in the 1940s and includes a lynching.

But there were also times during the second year of the pandemic when she wanted to escape into a book and try to forget what was going on around her.  At those moments, she turned to far-fetched romantic comedies like “Dial A For Aunties” by Jessie Q. Sutanto, about a woman who ends up accidentally killing her blind date, and travel guides about exotic destinations by TV host Rick Steves.

“I think during more intense moments or when things feel more depressing I just need something light-hearted,” said Cookson, 38, an administrator from Westbrook. “I just requested the (Steves’) Paris guide.”

Lists of the most-borrowed books of 2021 from Maine libraries show that people were interested in tales of struggle – including racism and long-ago pandemics – but also wanted to escape into a good murder mystery or read about ways to improve their well-being as the pandemic dragged on. The lists also show that Mainers like to read about their neighbors, as books by and about people from Maine had high check-out counts as well.

“They weren’t all best-sellers,” said Rebecca Starr, literature and language librarian at the Portland Public Library, which created a list of its 30 most-borrowed books for 2021. “Some were about uplifting people’s consciousness about race and racism. Some people needed to escape. Then there were apocalyptic or pandemic books, maybe to help people make sense of things.”

Rebecca Starr, Literature and Language Librarian with the Portland Public Library, holds five books on a list of the library’s most-borrowed books of 2021. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A novel about living through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, “The Four Winds” by Kristen Hannah, was the most frequently borrowed fiction book last year within Minerva, a consortium of more than 60 Maine libraries. It was checked out 1,990 times from one of the consortium’s libraries, either directly or though a loan from another member. The list was compiled by James Jackson Sanborn, executive director of MaineInfonet, the organization that administers Minerva for its members.

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Other novels about societal struggles on Minerva’s top 10 fiction list included “The Vanishing Half,” with 1,187 checkouts, and “Hamnet: a Novel of the Plague” by Maggie O’Farrell, with 915.

Some of the Portland Public Library’s most borrowed books of 2021. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Minerva’s nonfiction list included some tales of struggle too, including “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains,” by Rumford-area native Kerri Arsenault, about pollutants and incidents of cancer in that papermaking community.  “Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch,” by Erin French, is a memoir about how she dealt with abuse and addiction on her way to creating The Lost Kitchen restaurant in the Maine town of Freedom. Another, though not by a Mainer, was “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. It looks at racism in the United States and at caste systems in other parts of the world.

Some of the books on the list that offered escape, by way of a good mystery, included two novels by Maine author Paul Doiron, featuring Game Warden Mike Bowditch: “Dead by Dawn” and “One Last Lie.” Some of the books that dealt with wellness or the power of positive thinking included “Greenlights” by actor Matthew McConaughey and “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times” by Katherine May.

Portland Public Library’s top 10 list, which combined fiction and nonfiction, included seven titles on the Minerva list. (Portland is not a Minerva member.)  No. 3 was “The Guest List,” an Agatha Christie-type thriller by Lucy Foley, while No. 8 was another mystery, “The Searcher” by Tana French. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, a novel about people united in their desire to save forests, was No. 10. Portland’s expanded top 30 list online shows show more titles about racism and societal ills, including “How to Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.

Kristen Hoffman found herself reading more thrillers for escape in 2021, while she used to scoff at them before the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Part of any book’s popularity is word of mouth, or in this day and age, word of internet. So most of the books on the most-borrowed lists are recent releases and have been recommended in online reviews, social media or other platforms. Kristen Hoffman of Windham follows several social media accounts focused on books, including the Portland Public Library’s Reading Challenge Facebook page. She read several of the books that ended up on the Portland library’s most-borrowed lists, including “The Vanishing Half,” “Anxious People” and “The Midnight Library.”

But Hoffman, 33, said that in the last couple of years she’s “let my guard down” and has branched out to reading books for fun, not just because they’re critically acclaimed or part of the literary canon, which is how she used to choose books. She said part that is because during the pandemic she’s had a lot more time to read.

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“Recently I’ve been reading a lot more thrillers, something I would have scoffed at a few years ago,” said Hoffman, who works in media sales. “Sometimes now I just need a story that’s fun and unpredictable.”

The popular items at specific libraries can vary greatly, depending on community interests and what the library’s collection includes. At the Gray Public Library, director Joshua Tiffany said authors like Doiron and fellow Mainer Stephen King are popular with patrons every year. During the pandemic, when fewer people have been going out to eat, the library’s cookbook collection has been circulating well, he said. He’s also seen a resurgence in the circulation of Harry Potter books, perhaps because people are looking for the comforting nostalgia of reading a family favorite again and again.

Joshua Tiffany, director of Gray Public Library, says cookbooks were popular at his library last year, the second year of the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A lot of people are just looking for a good laugh. After Cookson read some of the most-borrowed Minerva books last year, like “The Vanishing Half” and “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times,” she then looked for an escape in outrageous books, including “The Unhoneymooners” by Christina Lauren, about two people who can’t stand each other thrown together on a paid-for honeymoon trip when the bride, groom and the rest of the wedding party get food poisoning.

In “Dial A For Aunties,” the woman who accidentally kills her blind date then calls her mother and aunts to help hide the body, which gets shipped by mistake to a billionaire’s wedding, where they are all working because they run a family wedding business.

“That one had me laughing out loud,” said Cookson. “It was just fun.”

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