I was recently wandering a bookstore, looking through new arrivals in Fiction. I came upon a book with a summary that was something along the lines of, “a young woman finds herself thrown into the Upper East Side aristocracy, and must navigate this strange new world, where not all is at it seems.” I laughed, because I feel like every time I go into a bookstore, I read essentially the same sentence on a similar-looking dustjacket.
It made me wonder: what does the distribution for the settings of novels look like? Obviously bigger, more iconic cities will tend to have more novels set in them, but which cities really overindex and which cities underindex?
Where are books set in the world?
The NYT Bestsellers are overwhelmingly set in the US and Europe. This analysis only included cities that were in the book descriptions, and it misses books with settings in African countries (for some reason, the book descriptions for books set in Africa included country names but not city names).
The United States
New York dominates. I wasn’t surprised by this at all. New York is where the publishers are, where a plurality of the novelists live, and it’s an alluring city to read and write about.
Looking specifically at New York, Brooklyn and the Upper East Side were the most frequent settings.
I was surprised at the lack of Spanish cities and was disappointed to see Istanbul only come up once, as it is the most exciting city I’ve been to and is the perfect setting for a novel.
How to find the setting of books?
I couldn’t track down a database with book information that included setting, so I needed to figure out a proxy.
I had used the New York Times book API before to look at titles of nonfiction books, so after searching for an alternative I decided to use it again. I chose to pull the descriptions of the bestsellers from the past 12 years or so and count the number of books with a given place in their description. This obviously isn’t a perfect proxy for setting, as many book descriptions don’t have their setting named in the description, but many do. For example, this is the listing for Crazy Rich Asians, which is very popular right now:
For my analysis, this book would be indexed under both New York and Singapore.
Some of my Favorites
Some novels really represent cities to me. It’s one of my favorite things about reading; it’s a way of revisiting places you love. Here are a few of my favorites:
Catcher in the Rye, New York City. One of my favorite things to do in New York is to mope around in Central Park and pretend to be Holden Caulfield.
A Moveable Feast, Paris. Hemingway talks of Paris when it was cheap and filled with writers and artists and they drink a lot and have fun.
Istanbul Passage, Istanbul. This is a John Le Carre-esque novel that does a good job of capturing Istanbul’s smoky, mysterious side.
If you have any recommendations for books like this, let me know.
Thanks for reading! If you know of a book database that contains settings, please tell me about it! Reach out to me on twitter or email joe @ this website.
Code for the analysis can be found on github. I used Tableau Public to visualize the spatial data.