As early as May 2020 a Nielsen Book survey reported that 41% of UK adults were reading more during the coronavirus pandemic, almost doubling the time they spent reading books from around three-and-a-half hours a week to an average of six. In July 2020, National Literacy Trust research revealed that more than a third of eight to 18-year-olds were reading more than before lockdown. And 41% of young readers who voted in a Love Reading Kidzone poll said they were reading ‘much more’.
It’s tempting to think that people have been reading more during the health crisis simply because they have had the time, and haven’t been able to do much else during lockdown, but I think there is more to it. Reading is a real stress-buster - and most of us have needed some of that.
Fear of infection, social isolation, job and money worries - and perhaps home-schooling - have raised stress levels across the adult population. Even shopping for groceries has become a worrisome ordeal of masks, hand-gel, handle-wiping and social distancing. Supermarkets have become both a high-pressure environment and the only public place many of us have experienced over the past 12 months.
Children, too, have felt the stressful effects of normality eroded. According to The Reading Agency, 55% of children reported feeling stressed when schools closed and 60% were worried a relative might get sick. Experts are widely concerned about the lockdown impact not only on a generation’s education, but also their mental health.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest reading makes us feel better. It’s a popular, cultural pastime that has a positive, measurable impact on our health and wellbeing. Research conducted by the University of Sussex back in 2009 revealed reading could reduce stress levels by as much as 68 percent, and was more effective than either listening to music or going for a walk. Reading for just six minutes was shown to reduce heart rate and muscle tension.
The stress-busting effect is evident across the age-range. A mid-2020 National Literacy Trust survey of more than 50,000 nine to 18-year-olds reported that nearly 60% said they felt better for reading during lockdown.
So what have we been reading during the health crisis and will the pandemic have at least a semi-permanent effect on reading habits?
Some studies divide lockdown readers into two camps - those who like the comfort of re-reading familiar old favourites, and those who prefer to use their bonus reading time to experiment with different authors or genres. Whether shielding, furloughed or otherwise stuck at home, we’ve had more time to revisit the books we love. However, two-thirds of respondents to Nielsen’s survey said their reading interests - both fiction and non-fiction - had changed.
Anecdotal evidence suggests early interest in books about disasters and epidemics soon waned as readers sought to escape the grim realities of a global pandemic. A quick look through various bestseller lists shows a mix of crime thrillers, fiction, auto-biographies, cookery books - and slimming recipes. Many of us, it seems, whilst feeding our minds with more books than usual, have been on a lockdown journey from home-baking to big waists.
Home-schooling arguably gave children and young people more autonomy in how they read around and explored a topic. That said, classroom direction and peer companionship were sorely missed. The Reading Well campaign reported, in December 2020, that children’s stress factors included missing friends and loss of routine. An estimated one in four children living under lockdown, social restrictions and school closures were dealing with feelings of anxiety.
So escapism, again, features strongly in top titles for children. Best-sellers include fantasy, adventure and comedy titles, along with puzzle and joke books, and a few familiar characters such as Harry Potter, Stig of the Dump and Spot.
Warwickshire’s School Library Service reported a boom in requests from teachers for ‘real books’ as an antidote to the amount of time pupils have spent reading and learning online - swiping rather than turning actual pages.
Parents have been buying books to help their children with schoolwork and ‘funny stories’ to cheer them up. Book purchases, whether paper or digital, have been online during lockdown - apart from the limited selections for sale in some supermarkets. According to the Publishers’ Association, audio books downloads have been the fastest-growing format, popular with both adults and children.
Sales ‘surged’ in early lockdown and the upward trend continued through 2020, with more than 200 million printed books sold in the UK - the best performance for some years. In October 2020, Bloomsbury, which publishes Harry Potter books, reported its best half-year figures since 2008, citing online book sales and higher e-book revenues as key contributors.
Public library services have been offering free click-and-collect book loans, and home deliveries to housebound readers. Feedback on lockdown services has been very positive, and ‘lucky dip’ selections - titles hand-picked for customers by librarians - have been well-received. Again, these have encouraged readers to explore new authors and genres. Customers in Warwickshire have shown a preference for happy endings and books on hobbies, outdoor activities, help with home schooling, and DIY.
Meanwhile library authorities have seen substantially increased use of digital library services during the pandemic - up by 800% in Warwickshire, for example.
Warwickshire’s adult borrowing figures for the past 12 months make interesting reading. The top five most-borrowed print titles were different to the top five e-audio and e-book loans. Lee Child’s Blue Moon topped the print list and his Past Tense came third, with Ann Cleeves’ Long Call in second place. Childs’ The Catch appeared in two lists - coming third for e-audio and topping the e-book chart. The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri didn’t make the print top five either, but was the second most-borrowed audio and e-book title.
Availability clearly had an impact. Four of the top five e-audio loans featured in a ‘listen now, no wait’ promotion - with 500 downloads simultaneously on offer. Two of the most-requested titles, in both the e-audio and e-book categories, were the same - Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club and Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
The latter was one of three top-loaning non-fiction titles, along with Fiona Brennan’s The Positive Habit and Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything. Other non-fiction categories popular during lockdown were health and wellbeing, and home-based activities such as cookery and gardening.
Print and digital borrowers showed somewhat different tastes during lockdown but trends emerged across all formats. As one of my senior staff, who works in Stock Services, noted:
“Crime and thrillers always issue well but during the last year we've noticed an increase in romances, escapism and mood-boosting books loaning - plus wellbeing titles have been incredibly popular. We've also noticed people revisiting old favourites and books they always meant to read, with perennial bestsellers and classics issuing well.”
Clearly some parents sought to mitigate the effects of lockdown limitations on young children’s development. Warwickshire’s Library Stock Services saw a rise in queries about early readers and books to help develop literacy skills.
The top five picture books borrowed in Warwickshire included three titles by Julia Donaldson, whose The Gruffalo’s Child topped the chart, and some ever-popular favourites: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle at number two, and Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt in fourth place.
Harry Potter titles took the top five places in the young readers’ e-audio chart and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was the most-borrowed e-book. The publishers made the latter available for simultaneous download during the first lockdown. The Boy who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd was the second most popular e-book in Warwickshire, with two David Walliams stories in third and fourth place. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins came fifth.
Warwickshire staff say wider lockdown exposure contributed to popularity. Authors such as Liz Pichon, Julia Donaldson and David Walliams provided online content so, as one stock librarian remarked: “As well as already having a large following and lots of name-recognition, their lockdown activity kept them in the people's minds.”
Will it last?
It’s difficult to predict whether the pandemic will have a long-term effect on customer habits and trends. Browsing, which is such a big part of the library offer in normal times, has been severely curtailed over the past year. People’s reading has, perhaps, been more directed. Many library customers have migrated online, where availability of downloadable titles has inevitably been a big factor in their reading choices. However, the ease and convenience of 24-hour digital library services will undoubtedly have continuing appeal for some.
The pandemic has reconnected people with simpler pleasures, at or closer to home. Many of us have had more time to enjoy reading and, for those shielding, books have been a lifeline during long and enforced isolation. One hopes those who have rediscovered the joy of reading during the past year will hang onto the book habit when some kind of normality returns.
It’s hard to guess how long the social side-effects of the pandemic will last - assuming we can beat or at least control COVID 19 - but the self-preservation instinct to avoid unnecessary social interaction could stick with us for a while. I suspect the simple, solitary pleasure of a good book will have extra appeal for some time to come.
I am a member of the Public Lending Right committee but the PLR’s lockdown data has not been released yet. It will be interesting to compare Warwickshire’s experience with national trends. Talking to colleagues across the country, I don’t think they will be too dissimilar.
Ayub Khan is Head of Universal Services for Warwickshire County Council, past president of CILIP and a trustee for Libraries Connected. Ayub is also a member of the British Library's Public Lending Rights Committee.