When readers all over the world are suddenly taken out of their daily routines and tossed into the new schedules and confinements of a pandemic, what happens to their stacks of unread books?
So many readers have had to pivot their lives: to work from home, to maintain their mental health without seeing their friends or going outdoors, even to take charge of their children’s education or take on extra shifts as essential workers. Many of the readers who have more reading time are finding that the mental toll of current events is hurting their attention spans, or seeing their genre preferences shift and twist.
I decided to find out the answers to these questions by interviewing real, avid readers about how the pandemic has impacted their reading lives. I talked to authors, book bloggers, librarians, and general readers to investigate how the anxiety and circumstances of the pandemic have changed our reading habits.
Struggling With New Schedules
All that Fadwa, a book blogger and content creator at Word Wonders, did when Morocco first went into lockdown was read. But they’re a medical student, and 2 months ago, their full-time work at the hospital started up again. With the chaotic nature of their shift schedule and the weight of their work, their reading began to lag behind.
“I started a new rotation, so sometimes I work from 8:00 to 1:00, and sometimes from 1:00 to 8:00, so my days are a bit of a mess right now,” Fadwa explained. The time they don’t spend working is divided between reading and blogging; filming, editing, and posting their videos onto YouTube; friends and family; and other life responsibilities. Their reading has been pushed to either audiobooks in the morning as they get ready for work, or late at night settling into bed.
“It’s hard fitting reading into a schedule that’s always shifting, because I’m usually a person of routine,” Fadwa said. “When things start moving around, I have a hard time fitting everything where it needs to fit.”
The changes in circumstances and scheduling have given other readers more time than ever to read, and many are taking advantage. Reader Christine Schmidt works in philanthropy. Her time used to be packed—in addition to a full-time job, she would travel often for work or to see her long-distance partner. But then work shifted remote, she moved in with her partner, and time opened up.
“I’ve finished a book in one weekend two or three times, which really is not typical for me,” Christine said. “Those weekends are the ones where I feel wildly recharged. I haven’t read that much since the summers of grade school.”
Just knowing that she has the time in her schedule has allowed her to feel freer to read. “I finally have the mental space, or gave myself the peace, to enjoy reading books again,” Christine said. “Last year I read about 25 books according to my Goodreads, and this year I’m already finished with 24, including two nonfiction books over 700 pages.” The nonfiction included Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula L. Giddings and These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, neither of which she felt she would have had the time to read pre-pandemic.
“It couldn’t have been a more important year to educate myself with books and spend my money at small, community-centered, often Black-owned bookstores, and even though I recognize the pain and loss that has come with 2020, I’m appreciative of the bizarre silver lining of time that this year has provided,” Christine said.
Librarians Are Here to Help
Stephen Sposato is manager of content curation at Chicago Public Library (CPL). He oversees selection and reader’s advisory; in other words, he and his team are in charge of deciding what books are ordered and how many of them arrive in Chicago libraries throughout the year, as well as deciding which books to recommend to the 1.7 million patrons of the system.
Since the pandemic began, he says that ebook usage has increased substantially. “Due to the fact that we were closed to the public for a while, people couldn’t access the physical collections,” Sposato said. “But ebook usage remains higher than it was a year ago, even now that our doors are open again. I assume that’s partially due to COVID concerns of our patrons.” As soon as the doors of Chicago’s libraries opened, patrons returned, although the majority have changed their behavior—browsing less, and instead coming in to pick up their holds and leave.
This has left Stephen’s team working hard to anticipate what their readers will be interested in, and also thinking carefully and critically about the content they create to recommend books to patrons. Through 2020, his team has worked to come up with fresh content that highlights what’s going on. In particular, they kept an eye out for titles that resonated with the COVID experience. They highlighted Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, set during the Spanish influenza epidemic, and Summer by Ali Smith, which is the first novel Stephen’s seen to specifically deal with COVID. Back in April, they also did a lighthearted list of movies featuring masks, trying to normalize the idea of wearing one.
This year, there was a substantial spike in interest in books on anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. “We have seen holds on all the big titles that have been on the news, as well as lesser known titles and backlist titles addressing these topics,” said Stephen. “Our foundation jumped into fundraising mode and raised funding for us to offer greater quantities and copies and access to some books.” The content team also created a Black Lives Matter section on the CPL website, and have committed to keep it growing, filling it out with reading lists.
CPL has an African American services committee that pulled together some innovative content for the website. “They put together a list called ‘Self-Care as a Form of Protest’,” said Stephen. His team tries to be timely, wanting to engage their patrons as much as possible. “We also did a list about the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at the beginning of August, not realizing what a big month it was going to be for the hurricane season. And we did a couple of lists about John Lewis and his legacy—lists for kids, teens, and adults.”
Stephen is a big reader himself, but he wasn’t able to focus on books for a week or two at the beginning of the pandemic, instead spending his time reading the news and trying to wrap his head around what was going on. His schedule was new as well—he used to read during his commute, but now his reading is done primarily at night and on weekends. He was finally able to pull himself back into reading by checking out new books by some of his favorite authors. “I was lucky,” Stephen said. “I have friends who are big readers who have not yet pulled out of that slump. A lot of people[‘s] reading was disrupted, and they haven’t been able to get back into it.”
This is something that the curation team at Chicago Public Library is trying to take seriously. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we can do to reassure readers: it’s okay if you can’t read right now,” Stephen said. “People are sometimes reading to engage with what’s going on right now, and sometimes they are reading for distraction and for comfort—including being read to, on audio,” said Stephen. “I think it’s important for librarians to reassure patrons that it’s okay if they don’t feel like reading right now, or if their concentration is off, or they aren’t finishing books or only feel like reading shorter pieces.”
That said, he encourages readers to engage with their local librarians and the content their libraries are creating. “Librarians are trained to help readers find books that suit their changing moods and evolving needs,” Stephen said. “I would recommend that people remember what a resource they have, not just in the library collection, but also in its knowledgeable staff.”
Reading Less: The Mental Weight
The mental toll of staying at home, and of the political realities of the world, have had too big an impact on many readers to allow them to sink into their usual reading patterns, even when their schedules allow for more reading time.
“In terms of work, I’m working completely from home now,” says Sarah Watson, author of Most Likely and creator of The Bold Type. “I had been in Atlanta on set about to shoot my pilot, so I was hardly reading anything. But now I have all this time, and instead of reading, I’m pacing around and looking at Twitter and doomscrolling.”
Sarah says that the constant stress of the pandemic has weighed on her more than the changes in her routine. “I’ve never been a person who reads multiple books at once, but I find now that I like having a couple going at the same time,” Sarah said. “I’ve also always been a person who, if I pick up a book, I’m going to finish it, but recently I start books and put them down a lot.” She usually listens to audiobooks while walking her dog, but has found herself listening instead to political podcasts that get her worked up.
The mental health toll of staying at home in the midst of a global pandemic can be high. Emery Lee, author of Meet Cute Diary (HarperCollins 2021), YouTuber, and Pitch Wars 2020 Mentor, has found that the pandemic weighed on eir reading habits. E started this year doing a reading challenge to read every unread book on eir shelf. But after March and the stay-at-home orders across the U.S. went into effect, e didn’t read anything for months.
“I have ADHD, so I need constant changing to keep my attention span,” Emery explained. “If I spend a day in the same room, by the end of the day, I can’t focus on anything.” Emery worked from home before the pandemic’s shut-down as well, but in the past, e would run errands throughout the day, and then come home and read. “Now, I feel by the time I reach the end of the day, I have no attention span left, because I’ve been stuck inside all the time.”
It’s gotten somewhat better over the latter part of this pandemic. Emery is still reading much less than e did pre-pandemic, but eir habits have adapted. “Things like having virtual happy hours with some friends, or spending more time on my patio—it feels a little less monotonous even though I’m still stuck at home,” Emery said.
Reading More to Escape
Many are finding that the new time they have to read is helping alleviate the stress of living in the midst of a pandemic. Dev Jannerson (@djannerson on Twitter) has depended on books during the pandemic. “I’ve always been a big reader, but since COVID hit, I’ve been voracious. Sometimes I struggle to focus, because I’m terrified of what will happen if I get sick,” they said, “so I’ve been choosing comics for visual stimulation, and audiobooks so I can blow off steam by playing phone games at the same time.”
Faith Parke-Dodge, a bookseller at Page 158 Books in Wake Forest, North Carolina, has been reading a lot more while at home working as well as caring for her two toddlers. “I find myself gravitating to audiobooks rather than podcasts because I need to escape reality,” she said. “Like a lot of people, I have started to have insomnia, so I pull out a book light and read so I’m not spiraling into anxiety at 3:00 a.m.”
Avid reader Lauren (@LifeLivedWildly on Twitter) has also found herself reading much more in the last six months to manage her mental health, taking book after book out from the library. “It’s a cathartic way to safely feel some of the intense emotions that have come up while social distancing,” she said. “So I’ve been reading two to three times more than normal.”
Financial analyst Monica Borges is a single mother in a three-generation home. As an introvert, she has been a reader for years, and with the scheduling changes of the pandemic—her son is a college freshman taking classes from home, and she no longer has to go into the office—she’s reading even more. Her son is a night owl and very computer-geared, and has been coping well with college virtually. She feels deeply for the moms and parents with young children, or children who currently attending school in-person or virtually learning. “I feel for them, because I can just imagine how it is, and then trying to do your own work as well,” said Monica.
Nevertheless, reading serves as an escape from the stressful political and health issues of the world around her. “My father last year suffered a stroke,” Monica said, “so taking care of him, making sure his needs are being met with a physical therapist amidst everything that’s going on—it’s a lot to handle mentally.” On top of that, Monica is the only member of her household who is able to go out—whether to get groceries, medications, or other necessary outings. “I just go read and go into a different world, and let it involve me. I feel better. I feel relaxed. It takes my mind off things.”
Monica has been blazing through a pile of old paperbacks she picked up at a library book sale: they’re some of her favorite genres, including courtroom dramas, political thrillers, psychological thrillers, and murder mysteries. On the rare occasion she needs a break from those, she reads classics: during the pandemic, she reread Gone With the Wind in less than two weeks. “Sunday, I started reading this book, and I stayed up til 3:30 last night to finish it,” Monica said. “And the only reason I was able to do that is because I work from home and can get up at 8:25, and at 8:30 I’m at work.”
Monica’s escapism is also rooted in the feeling of isolation that has haunted many during the pandemic—the inability to see family and friends. Emily, who recently earned her master’s degree in anthropology, found herself in a unique situation when she and her partner moved to a small, remote town in Northern Canada in March 2020. She was preparing to defend her thesis, and was looking forward to connecting with people in the small town as she worked at the local museum. She attended a happy hour meant to welcome her, and made a few tentative connections. The next day, Canada shut down.
“It can be difficult to move to a very small town even outside of the pandemic,” said Emily. “People who have lived in the town for a long time might wait to invest in a relationship with you if you haven’t proved that you’re sticking around. So we entered into that kind of situation—and then that was compounded by COVID-19.” Even when people began to open up to social interaction again, they only really opened up to their own bubbles of friends and family. “We found it was very difficult to get to know people.”
“I came to really appreciate the local library, because it started an at-home book delivery service,” Emily said. “The librarian literally just biked books around town. I found myself really appreciating that community aspect, and leaning on reading more in the absence of social interaction.” Now, Emily is back in Calgary, still reading a ton from her local library, but now also hiking often with her partner, and feeling more at home.
The formats and genres that readers are finding themselves drawn to have changed in the past six months as well. Fadwa still reads the same genres—fantasy and romance—as before the pandemic, but the ratios have changed. “Romance is my comfort genre, the genre that I go to when I just need a pick-me-up. And it’s also the genre that’s easier for me to read,” said Fadwa. “After work, when I have done so many things in the day, I just want to wind down, and romance is the best way for me to do that.”
Emery has found that e is leaning more towards short contemporaries, middle grade, or graphic novels—books e can finish in one go. “You go on Twitter now, and it’s 99% the world is ending,” Emery laughed—with all the information constantly flowing into our brains, it’s hard to focus on and process genres that are twisty or world-building-heavy. “I feel now, when I read, I want something that’s just easy, where I can cruise through it and not have to think all that much,” Emery said.
That’s not the only reason Emery has started to feel more drawn towards contemporary. “My fantasy reading tends to be exclusively YA fantasy, and there’s this massive recurrent theme of rebels needing to overthrow this harmful government,” Emery said. “And I feel, as weird as it is, that hits very close to home right now. Whereas, a contemporary, where we’re just hanging out on the beach—that feels like fantasy. That’s just so far removed from reality.”
Sarah Watson can relate to that—when the pandemic first began, she was reading Severance by Ling Ma, a dystopia about a plague, which she says was an amazing book but took her a month to read given its pandemic-like topic. She’s found it difficult to find the right balance in terms of genre.
“I feel like Goldilocks. Early in the pandemic, I was trying to read things that were light and an escape, but then they’d feel too frivolous. So I’d put them down and try reading something heavier,” She said. But heavier didn’t work either, as she discovered when she read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Know My Name by Chanel Miller one after another and ended up in too dark a place mentally.
Now, her goal is finding “those sweet spot books”—something not too heavy, and not too light. One of those was When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal, a great book about a relationship between two sisters, that deals with just enough heavy topics without weighing too much on her. “I could take it seriously, but it wasn’t so serious that I wanted to just crawl under my bed and never come out,” she says.
Sarah has found a more comfortable place with page-turning mysteries, such as The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. “They’re gripping something in me,” says Sarah. “I think there’s something about being able to solve whatever the mystery is, because there’s no solution to our bigger world at large.” When so much is uncertain—from the ever-receding end to COVID-19 restrictions to the approaching election to the status of our Supreme Court and the protests over police brutality—there is something beautiful, Sarah says, about a certain kind of conclusion: “There’s something about being able to read a book that has a solution at the end.”
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