As Abigail Boucher, Chloe Harrison and Marcello Giovanelli note in an article on The Conversation, reading habits and literary genre preferences can change during times of great stress, partly because we tend to seek comfort, reflection and relief in books. On the other hand, much genre fiction has its roots in times of significant social, political and economic change or upheaval.
There were several reflections on media consumption patterns in the first part of the pandemic. As the authors go on to say, books dealing with isolation – literal or metaphorical – were the most popular: think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; as well as books recalling similar upheavals – the Decameron, Albert Camus’s Plague, and even the horror genre with Stephen King’s The Stand.
The authors therefore set up a survey to understand the evolution of reading trends and habits among the UK public, investigating how many people read (even many book lovers found it difficult to read during the lockdown), what they read and how many people read books they had previously read.
Respondents reported that they read more than usual, although with a problem of quantity over quality: the inability to concentrate meant that more time was spent reading, but less was read. Isolation and pandemic themes only came to the fore at the beginning of the pandemic; in general, respondents said they tried to explore things they did not normally have the time or desire to read, and interestingly, for some it was comforting to reread books they had already read, whether out of contingency (such as the inability to go to the bookstore, or the need to save money) or the comfort of something familiar.
Certainly reading has offered a comfort, a refuge to many people. In an essay published on the New York Times, Coronavirus Notebook: finding solace, and connection, in classic books, Michiko Kakutani reflects on how, in this time of crisis, we are reminded that literature provides not only empathy, but also a historical perspective: it breaks our isolation by reconnecting us with the words of those who lived through similar experiences, in other times, evoking our nightmares or prompting us to see the experiences we have in common with other people. As Kakutani continues:
Writers, chronicling the plagues that repeatedly afflicted London in the 17th century, remarked on the silence that descended upon the city (Pepys noted in a letter that “little noise” was to be heard “day or night but tolling of bells” for burials); the shuttering of businesses, theater and sport events; and nervous efforts to use weekly death counts to try to ascertain whether the disease curve was flattening or ascending. Quacks peddled “antipestilential pills” and an “incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before,” and then, as now, the wealthy fled to country homes to escape the plague-ridden city streets, while the poor had no choice but to continue working there in low-paying, high-risk jobs. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” — a series of fictional tales recounted by characters who have fled Florence to escape the Black Plague, which decimated the city in 1348 (killing, it’s been estimated, half the population) — provides what is now a sadly familiar account of “the deadly havoc” a pandemic can leave in its wake, as well as an appreciation of the consolations of storytelling, and the human capacity for recovery and renewal.