Crime thrillers dominate UK library lending

The names of Britain’s most borrowed books have been revealed, to mark National Libraries Day. Murder mysteries top the charts – but are readers guilty of wasting their time on trash?

What does the average library goer look like? An elderly lady, borrowing romance novels? Perhaps a fusty academic, or a schoolgirl reading picture books?

In fact, according to a list announced for National Libraries Day, most visitors are more interested in bloodshed, murder and mystery. Every one of the UK’s top ten most borrowed books is a fast-paced crime thriller, from Dan Brown‘s historical romps to grisly titles like The Postcard Killers.

The trend has bookworms scratching their heads. Crime novelist Lee Child thinks crime writing reassures us in our troubled world by giving us stories in which killers are always captured and order restored.

Other explanations are less grand. Because they are only enjoyable when the ending is unknown, some say, mystery books are only read once – they are borrowed, but not bought.

For some, however, the list paints a sad picture. Many critics look down on crime writing as an entertaining but empty distraction. At best, they say, it might be a stepping stone to Shakespeare. At worst, readers will stick to writing that, critics think, is trashy, violent and simplistic.

But if crime fiction is not worth reading, what is? For centuries, critics have been trying to identify the books that really deserve their place on the shelf. Whole careers have been devoted to identifying the few real literary gems – works that will stand the test of time.

In the eyes of most critics, Britain’s widely-borrowed crime writers do not belong in this sacred club. But few agree on who should be let in. In 1948, critic F.R. Leavis wrote The Great Tradition to set the list (which he called The Canon) once and for all.

His entry requirements were notoriously strict. Only four English novelists, he thought, deserved to be called ‘great’, and big players like Wordsworth and Dickens failed to make the cut.

A great read?

Are some books really more ‘worthwhile’ than others? After all, many readers point out, If someone is entertained and moved by a fast-paced whodunnit, their experience is just as valuable – and much more fun – than struggling through a thousand pages of some so-called ‘classic’. Everyone can read according to their taste. Calling some books ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ is just snobbish.

Quite the opposite, critics argue. Those that claim all books are equal are kidding themselves: compare Hamlet with The Da Vinci Code , and it is obvious that some writing is simply better than others. Thrillers may be exciting, the argument goes, but they are unfulfilling and trivial – read one minute and forgotten the next. Real classics, on the other hand, may be hard going, but once read they stay with you for life.

You Decide

  1. Can crime writing ever be considered literature?
  2. Is it useful to distinguish between writing that is ‘good’ and ‘bad’?


  1. Make your own top five of favourite books. Have everyone in the class name the five books which, in their opinion, are the greatest of all time. Then compile everyone’s thoughts to create a definitive top five. Which books make the cut?
  2. Design a library of the future. How do you develop the design of existing libraries to make them more attractive to young people? Can you think of interesting ways to display and categorise books to bring out the interesting things about them?

Some People Say...

“In the arts, there’s no such thing as good and bad.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This ‘canon’ stuff is nothing to do with me. I read what I want.
Whether you like it or not, the literary canon shapes our ideas about what books are good and bad. Most publishers and critics will be versed in a particular idea of what literature should be. That means the things that get printed will all have been influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, by ideas that have come from people’s opinions about good and bad writing.
Like Shakespeare?
Quite. Today, the Bard is an essential part of any study of English literature. But for a time he was just thought of as a particularly good 16th Century playwright – one among many. It was only when Romantic poets like William Wordsworth started defining him as a genius that Shakespeare gained his unshakable position as the king of English writing.

Word Watch

Dan Brown
A popular novelist, most famous for The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown represents ‘bad’ writing in the eyes of many. Many of his books deal with art history-based conspiracy theories, with a good-looking, James Bond-style art historian as their hero.
F.R Leavis
A literary critic is an academic who focuses on interpreting literature, and developing ideas about what the arts are about, and how words contribute to our understanding of the world. Leavis is widely regarded as an exemplary critic of the 20th Century, who worked towards shaping a Great Tradition that would provide form and meaning for 20th Century thought.
Not to be confused with ‘cannon’, a canon has nothing to do with artillery. Originally, the term described – among other things – the biblical texts that were regarded as official under church law. This use later spread to literature in general.


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