The link below is to an article that concludes that children read more challenging books while in lockdown.
Beyond the viral contagion of COVID-19, the pandemic’s accompanying social and economic hardships have challenged many people’s physical and mental wellness. Over the past year of navigating living in a pandemic, it’s become clear that relationships matter to health: relationships between body and mind, between neighbours and between individuals and their societies.
Literature was dissecting these connections long before the outbreak. Recent memoirs, non-fiction, fiction, poetry and graphic novels related to physical and mental health examine not just the fragility of individuals but how individuals relate to social and power structures like capitalism, racism or colonialism. Writers have also explored how people’s social roles and identities shape their relationships to narrative itself. As American poet and memoirist Anne Boyer writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Undying, “I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way that I have been taught to tell it.”
For several years, I have been researching, writing about and teaching literary texts related to maladies like depression, substance abuse and cancer. I’m interested in how narratives about health published today explore the interdependence of bodies and their environments in a way that may teach us important lessons during the pandemic, and beyond it.
The ‘literature of madness’
Some medical schools are requiring students to take literature courses to become more adept with reading patients’ stories; some students take my contemporary literature course at University of Victoria to satisfy a medical school course requirement. The convergence of these two fields is helping to disrupt the canonical “literature of madness.”
In “Literature of Madness” courses at various universities, students studied Dostoyevsky’s The Double, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
These health stories pit mentally ill characters against individual antagonists like husbands, mothers, doctors and nurses, or, fighting oneself as seen through the ancient literary theme of the double or dopplegänger (as in Dostoyevsky’s tale). Yet some critics have also explored how these narratives examine individuals battling formidable but intangible foes, and thus comment on social ills: For example, patriarchy in The Bell Jar
and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Many recent health narratives today are questioning how well-being is damaged by social determinants of health like income inequality and racism. They are also examining how health relates to phenomena like capitalism and climate change, which are elusive but all-pervasive.
For instance, Boyer damns the American health-care system, with its outrageous costs and lack of guaranteed sick leave, but also capitalism as a whole. For her, like Susan Sontag, cancer infuses culture as much as human bodies, but economic pressures also cast a huge shadow.
Blending personal experience and big-picture analysis can be found in other recent health memoirs. In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, American writer Leslie Jamison discusses her own experiences of alcoholism as a white woman alongside the racism of the American criminal justice system. As she observes: “White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of colour get punished.”
The best-selling essay collection A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott, examines
how systematic oppression of Indigenous communities is linked to depression.
Her settler therapist can’t understand why she’s depressed, and none of her self-help books actually help.
She writes of one, “There is nothing in the book about the importance of culture, nothing about intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia.”
This interest in the social determinants of health isn’t limited to non-fiction. Sabrina by American cartoonist Nick Drnaso is a 2018 graphic novel that was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Sabrina takes stock of what appears to be PTSD and depression in a political climate of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
As one character fills out a daily wellness report, the reader may realize anyone would feel depression and anxiety in such a world.
Health among the living
Meanwhile, Fady Joudah, a Palestinian American poet and practising doctor, weighs economic inequity and a lack of sustainability in “Corona Radiata,” a poem about COVID-19 published last March. “Corona Radiata” argues that we need to understand health as contingent on relationships between humans — and between humans and other living things. Joudah suggests that:
“Far and near the virus awakens
in us a responsibility
to others who will not die
our deaths, nor we theirs,
though we might …”
He’s right, if hopeful. Until the vaccine is widely distributed, public health will depend on our ability to understand ourselves as part of an inconceivably vast network.
American novelist Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019, also unites health with responsibility. In the novel, characters challenged by physical disabilities and strokes find ways to communicate with and through nature. A scientist almost dies by suicide early in the novel before recommitting herself to loving as well as studying the trees. Environmental activism gives them purpose, even if it doesn’t heal them.
Future health stories
British writer Robert Macfarlane has proposed that the environmental crisis will continue to transform our literature and art. Many recent works support his idea. In particular, the latest health literature fuses various genres, including memoir, biography, reportage, literary and cultural criticism, science writing and prose poetry.
The new health literature also reminds us that our health and the planet’s are inextricably linked. In the near future, this genre is likely to increasingly address the impact of climate change on our physical and mental well-being, such as the rise in eco-anxiety. I think we’ll see a blending of literature, medicine and environmental studies more and more often.
Some researchers have noted a link between reading and longevity in individuals. Reading health literature may spur us to support longevity for the Earth too.
Reading fiction has always been, for many, a source of pleasure and a means to be transported to other worlds. But that’s not all. Businesses can use novels to consider possible future scenarios, study sensitive workplace issues, develop future plans and avoid unplanned problematic events — all without requiring a substantial budget.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many business leaders have learned how important it is for businesses to consider a wide range of possible outcomes and to enhance organizational adaptability. Relying on analyzing or projecting trends and extending what business leaders usually do is no longer enough to assure future success. When management is poorly prepared for the unexpected, businesses start getting into trouble.
Scenario planning, therefore, helps businesses keep themselves flexible and move quickly with market shifts. Scenario planning is a series of potential stories or possible alternate futures in which today’s decisions may play out. Such planning can help managers assess how they or their employees should respond in different potential situations.
How businesses can use novels
Unfortunately, scenario planning requires time and resources. And depending on its use, such as for an investigation, budgeting or legal matters, it can also require collecting sensitive data. That can include employees’ personal experiences of sexual, discriminatory or psychological harassment, suicide, mental health, drug abuse, etc.
The more sensitive the needed data is, the more difficult it is to collect while ensuring employee privacy. This is where literary texts come in.
As sources for possible future scenarios capable of providing strategic foresight, or producing alternative future plans, novels can also help businesses create dialogue on difficult and even taboo subjects.
Novels are, therefore, capable of helping managers become better, providing them with creative insight and wisdom. Science fiction can provide a means to explore morality tales, a warning of possible futures, in an attempt to help us avoid or rectify that future.
Brave new business world
uses Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World to explore possible scenarios related to situations that are usually kept confidential, such as employees’ mental health issues and drug use or abuse. We examined how employers encounter uncertainty around the impact that legalizing cannabis could have on the work environment, and ways to consider such potential effects.
Brave New World is set in a dystopian future and has been adapted numerous times, most recently into a 2020 TV series. It portrays a dystopic civilization whose members are shaped by genetic engineering and behavioural conditioning. Their happiness is maintained by government-sanctioned drug consumption. It is a world where countries are protected by walls that keep the undesired away — an eerily familiar scenario to Donald Trump’s promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
By reading the novel, business managers can compare the world we live in today and the path our countries and corporations are on to the fictional events in the novel. This can help them pay attention to and address less comfortable, and sometimes often neglected, sensitive workplace issues that need to be considered when planning for the future.
For example, in Brave New World, the consumption of the drug “soma” becomes the norm upon which life is founded. When soma is taken away, individuals can no longer face their reality and they end up welcoming death.
Brave New World offers workplace leaders a look at what could happen if employees’ wellness, mental health or drug use are disregarded, and lead to isolation, absence, resignation or, in dire circumstances, suicide.
8-step action plan
To study sensitive workplace issues that could help generate new knowledge, lead to envisioning ways to act appropriately and develop future strategies, business managers can follow these steps:
- Form a team of managers and an HR representative who is aware of company policies and ethics protocols, and is in direct contact with employees.
- The team then decides which workplace issue(s) the organization needs to study.
- The team chooses a literary text, such as a novel, that discusses those issues.
- Each member of the team reads the literary text on their own before discussing it together in at least one session.
- The team researches the chosen workplace topics inside the organization and outside (for example, laws and regulations related to each issue).
- The team identifies insightful sections.
- The team analyzes the chosen extracts.
- The team writes a report with recommendations on workplace conditions and how best to improve them.
Reading has surged during lockdown. But literary works can provide us with more than a leisurely pastime. For businesses, novels represent a legitimate way to study the workplace, and this is accomplished by comparing the path our countries and corporations are on today to fictional events.
In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.
Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.
After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.
Life sliding by
His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.
He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:
When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.
But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?
That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.
It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.
The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?
Illness and isolation
Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.
It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:
As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.
Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.
Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.
Hi all. You may have noticed the decline in the number of posts recently. The reason for that decline has been ill health and I need to take a break for a week or two. So I’ll be back posting after a short recess. Thanks.
Earlier this year, as the world came to terms with the coronavirus pandemic, a letter purporting to have been written by F Scott Fitzgerald in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic did the rounds on the internet. It was, of course, a parody, but the writing style and notes to his pal Ernest Hemingway meant the letter – unless you’re a Fitzgerald expert – was pretty convincing:
At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.
Its real author, Nick Farriella, had expertly muddied the tone of Fitzgerald’s language with, some contemporary 21st century concerns, and a dash of the clichéd image of the character we’ve come to know as “Hemingway” – something of a macho bore, brawler and liar.
It’s an unfortunate, but sometimes well-deserved, persona, as I have come to know intimately whilst doing research for a new book examining his often ignored, shadowy time spent in London and Europe before and after D-Day.
This was an arguably defining time in his life and career, when he was possibly the best known living writer in the world and something of a one-man global commercial brand. Even then, I have discovered that when he was in the company of undercover spies and well-known authors (sometimes, like his friend Roald Dahl) he could be, by turns, thoughtful, loving, brilliant, brave, embarrassing, abusive and downright nasty.
For some, the tone of the parody pandemic letter was a brief moment of entertainment because it was the return of the cartoonish wild-eyed and comical version of Hemingway from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. For others, who knew a little more about Hemingway, it was yet another simplistic attempt to besmirch his deeply complex legacy – fake news, you might say.
Hemingway and the facts
In fact, Hemingway’s response to the pandemic of 1918-19 – and later waves too – was very different from the parody. The truth is effortlessly stranger and more enigmatic than any fiction. Of course Hemingway was guilty of hyping facts to meet his mantra that fiction could be truer than the truth. But that didn’t change his basic respect for scientific facts and the natural world.
He was, after all, the dutiful son of a doctor from Oak Park, Illinois who’d witnessed first-hand his father’s work and used the experiences in his later fictional works. The Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel has shown how serious illness, disease, sudden and prolonged death were nothing new to him. He was aware, in humans and animals, of the fragility of life.
The GP’s son later had his own appalling experiences in the first world war, when he volunteered for the Red Cross. Bad eyesight meant normal duty was out of the question, but a determined Hemingway used the Red Cross to get to the Italian front line instead.
Within hours of arriving in Italy, Hemingway was tasked with cleaning up the body parts of victims of shelling, a sight he recounted in his controversial short work “A Natural History of the Dead”, that both fascinated and horrified him. Within weeks he would be pulled off a battlefield himself, a bloodied wreck more dead than alive, with 228 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his legs. Long days and painful nights of touch-and-go recuperation followed.
Yet later, after shadowing Red Cross nurses, Hemingway wrote about the worst death he ever saw. It hadn’t been from a bomb or a bullet: “The only natural death I’ve ever seen […] was death from the Spanish influenza. In this you drown in mucus, choking, and how you know the patient is dead is; at the end he shits the bed.”
This horrendous scene was common amidst a global pandemic which had claimed, by December 1919, 50 million people. There was no coordinated national and international research as we would know it, no effective treatment, and certainly no vaccine on the way. Soldiers and volunteers like Hemingway were literally swimming in the virus.
Yet Hemingway dodged the peaks of the 1918-19 pandemic waves by weeks, sometimes days, as he convalesced in Italy, and then returned to the US. Once home, he discovered family and friends had perished from it. Despite youthful public insouciance, all these experiences privately scarred him, and that dying soldier in Italy was never far from his mind.
According to as his masterful biographer Michael Reynolds, Hemingway’s superstition about death meant that “the slightest possibility of flu often sent him scurrying for healthier conditions, for he had a particular horror of drowning in his own fluids”. Consequently, by 1926 and now living in Paris, when his son Jack, nicknamed “Bumby”, developed a “hacking cough”, Hemingway immediately sent him and his wife Hadley off to the clean air and sunshine of the Riviera to recover, while he went solo to Spain to work.
Hadley and Bumby Hemingway arrived at Antibes on May 26 1926, and the child was immediately diagnosed with the infectious – and potentially fatal – whooping cough. Quarantine was called for, so both were summarily housed by their hosts, the ever-generous patrons of the arts Sara and Gerald Murphy, in a small dwelling near their own 14-roomed Villa America.
One week later they were moved again, under quarantine conditions, to a hastily vacated Villa Paquita at Juan les Pins, previously inhabited by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who had zipped off to the safety of another coastal retreat. To complicate matters, Hemingway’s mistress Pauline Pfeiffer, a chic Paris-based editor at Vogue magazine, arrived from Paris, and within 48 hours, they were joined fresh from Madrid by the central figure in this peculiar set-up, Hemingway himself.
For a while, quarantining was all very jolly. By day, Hemingway dedicated himself to editing corrections to his soon-to-be bestseller The Sun Also Rises. By evening, everyone gathered for socially-distanced cocktails with the Murphys and Fitzgeralds, who stayed outside the garden fence. Empty bottles, drained and upended, were mounted like heads on the spiked fence. Each one marked another day of quarantine for the Hemingway child.
It worked – to an extent.
Quarantine ended when his son got better, though as a precaution he and his nanny were housed nearby, leaving Hemingway in a nice hotel with the two women. He pretended he was happy but inevitably, the post-lockdown arrangement slid into emotional anarchy. Hadley Hemingway and he argued, while Pfeiffer hung on for the prize she wanted most – Hemingway himself. It stayed that way as everyone decamped from the Riviera to Pamplona, Spain for the annual fiesta.
Within a year of that quarantined summer, the Hemingways were divorced.
In 1937, 11 years later, despite quarantining in Saranac Lake, Upstate New York, the Murphy’s 16-year-old son Patrick died from tuberculosis.
Hemingway rose at dawn on July 2 1961 in Idaho and took his own life.
The child who had the whooping cough in 1926, Jack “Bumby” Hemingway, had a happier outcome than most in his family. He became a decorated second world war veteran who survived capture and imprisonment after parachuting into Nazi Germany, and died peacefully in 2000.
The link below is to an infographic that takes a look at reading habits and the coronavirus.
The link below is to an article looking at one of the latest COVID-19 trends – buying rare books.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book The Secret Garden has once again been adapted for the screen. Critics have noted that the film about a healing garden has come just at the right time, with The Telegraph calling it “a sparkling COVID antidote”.
Ofcom in the UK estimates that the average three-to-four-year-old spends around three hours a day in front of a screen. This rises to four hours for ages five to seven, 4.5 hours by ages eight to 11, and 6.5 hours for teenagers. Time spent playing outdoors, as a result, is at an all-time low. It might be a wonder then, why, in 2020, a new film about playing outside is being released to an audience that seems so disconnected from it.
2020 has been, to say the least, an odd year. And, after a nationwide lockdown and restrictions currently being reimposed over large parts of the UK, The Secret Garden, a story about the healing qualities of nature – where magic, joy and, importantly, escape can be found – speaks to children (and adults) more than ever. “It sees a group of traumatised people who don’t get out much find solace in gardening and fresh air,” notes Helen O’Hara in Empire speaking about the similarities between the Edwardian cast of characters and our current reality.
The story follows Mary Lennox, a self-centred and neglected child, who is forced to move to her uncle’s estate in Yorkshire after her parents die from cholera in India. Left to her own devices and struggling to adjust, Mary finds distraction in exploring the estate’s vast grounds. It is on one of these jaunts that she discovers a hidden garden. Overgrown and mysterious, the place was locked years before by her uncle after his wife died in it.
The garden is, unsurprisingly, irresistible to Mary and, along with her spoiled cousin Colin who believes he’s disabled, and the good-natured Dickon, a kindly maid’s little brother, she finds that it is more than just a place to play. There nature has the power to heal, create relationships and bring joy; the garden also can help mend the wounds of the past, transforming hopeless grief to possibility.
The importance of nature as a source of healing has become increasingly clear during periods of lockdown as we find ourselves longing for green spaces as an escape from the news and our own four walls. Gardens (those of us who have them) and local parks and green spaces become important spaces where children can run around and adults can take a moment to reset. Like in The Secret Garden, we have discovered nature anew and it has restored us.
In children’s literature, gardens are a place for dreaming, adventures, and even for time travel. In books such as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe and Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic, the garden takes children back in time. There they meet people from the garden’s history or other historically important individuals. They have run-ins with their ancestors or undertake actions to save other (usually young) characters from the past who were treated badly or in danger.
The garden is a place to “fix” mistakes and learn about the great mystery and circle of life. Gardens, also, represent time itself: they never stop growing and changing. Every seed planted carries within it the hopes we have for the future.
While The Secret Garden is not a time-travel device as such, it does act as a conduit between the past and present. In it the family’s history is exposed and reckoned with, changing the present and setting them on a course to a new, more hopeful future together.
This connection between gardens and time (and time travel) might appeal to 2020 viewers who are looking for a way to connect the past with an uncertain future. In this story that many adults hold dear, they can rediscover their childhood and escape for a moment in nostalgia for a simpler time.
Once we enter the garden, however, who we are affects how we relate to it. Children have a completely different relationship to gardens than adults: adults see the backbreaking work that goes into them, while children benefit from all that hard work and only see a place to run and play. For the children in The Secret Garden, the garden is a place of discovery, fun, and recovery, in that order. And that is possibly the main key to the story’s longevity: it feeds into a faith in nature as healing, something difficult to ignore amid the friction over climate change and the destruction of some ecosystems.
The past seven months of lockdowns have fostered a hunger for personal green spaces. With the newest film version of The Secret Garden, our love affair with gardens is again brought to the big — and small — screen, where those of us who have been stuck inside can unlock the garden gate and, with a childlike innocence we yearn for, enter a magical green wonderland to take advantage of the healing properties and timeless qualities of a garden that has been waiting for us.
During times of crisis, people find themselves faced with lifestyle changes. One of the earliest and most noticeable changes seen during the COVID-19 lockdown was how we consume media — and especially how we read.
People tend to find comfort in certain books, and reading habits and genre preferences can change during periods of stress. This helps to explain why much genre fiction has roots in times of significant social, political or economic upheaval. Gothic literature is, in part, a British Protestant response to the French Revolution (1789-99).
Science fiction, which emerged as a genre around the fin de siècle, was galvanised by both the industrial revolution and the theories of Charles Darwin. The hard-boiled detective story, which appeared in the 1930s, takes its cues from the privations of the great depression.
While it’s still relatively early to see the influence of the coronavirus and the lockdown on creative industries, there were some striking patterns in media consumption in the early part of the pandemic. Books about (literal and metaphorical) isolation, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Gabriel García Marquez’s novels One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera were among those that saw a big rise in sales. (Beyond books, horror flourished; in particular, films about global pandemics such as 28 Days Later, Contagion, and Outbreak were among the highest rentals on streaming services.)
In view of these patterns of changing reading habits during times of upheaval and signs that such changes were happening during COVID-19, our team decided to research reading habits among the UK public. We were particularly interested in the following questions about the effects of the pandemic:
How much people have been reading;
What type and genre of texts people have been reading;
To what extent people have been returning to previously read books.
As many as 860 participants took part in our online survey, which was advertised through social media. Our findings show that the COVID-19 lockdown changed not only how people read during times of stress, but also what people turn to for comfort or distraction.
Respondents generally reported that they were reading more than usual. This was largely due to having more free time (due to being furloughed, or not having a commute, or the usual social obligations or leisure activities).
This increased reading volume was complicated for those with caring responsibilities. Many people with children reported that their reading time had increased generally because of their shared reading with children, but had less time than normal for personal reading.
Reading frequency was further complicated by a quality vs quantity snag. People spent more time reading and seeking escape, but an inability to concentrate meant they made less progress than usual. In short, people spent more time reading but the volume they read was less.
Despite the early figures showing spikes in interest for content about pandemics and isolation, it appears that people quickly tired of these topics. Many respondents sought out subject matter that was at least predictable, if not necessarily comforting. Many found solace in the “security” of more formulaic genres (whodunnits and other types of thrillers were often cited). Others found themselves significantly less picky about genre than they were before the lockdown: they read more, and more widely.
Many found the lockdown to be a great opportunity to explore things they didn’t normally have the time or desire to read (like hefty classics that seemed too dull or heavy to bring on a commute) or to fill other gaps in knowledge (the protests over police brutality and racism were cited frequently as the catalyst for many readers seeking out more texts by non-white authors).
Much as with the choice of genre, readers generally fell into two camps: those that read for exploration and those that re-read for safety. The re-readers found solace in previously read books: familiar plots and known emotional registers helped stressed-out readers avoid suspense and surprises.
Unsurprisingly, lockdown also made re-reading a physical necessity for some. Some respondents noted how they were unable to visit the library or browse at the bookshop for new books. Others reported that they simply wished to save money. On the other hand, the participants who reported re-reading less than normal during the lockdown period wanted to use their newfound time to seek out new topics and genres.
The two groups also drew on different metaphors to describe their experiences: some of the non-re-readers talked about time as a commodity (for example, valuing reading something new), while the re-readers discussed the ability to travel easily, and with little effort to familiar places, characters and experiences.
Our research shows that the lockdown really did affect the reading habits of those who took part in our survey. But what might be the longer term implications of the lockdown on how and why we read? And what might happen given the possibility of a second lockdown? It remains to be seen if and how the pandemic might be responsible for continuing changes in our relationship with books.
Abigail Boucher, Lecturer in English Literature, Aston University; Chloe Harrison, Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Aston University, and Marcello Giovanelli, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Literature, Aston University