Book-reading soars as lockdown slows time

Seven gems: Our selection of amazing books from 2020.

Would it make us happier to give up the internet and read books instead? Experts say it can cure us of our anxious online lives. But with all this free time, what should we read next?

It has been a strange year. A pandemic put lives on hold and shut us indoors with unexpected free time for housebound hobbies: from painting to embroidery, baking and reading.

But unlike medieval lockdowns, we have had the internet to distract us. Time online surged and UK adults spent more than a quarter of their waking day on the internet. This worries mental health experts, who link social media to increased stress and anxiety.

Bookworms say we can all be happier if we disconnect and open a book instead. And not only because stories distract us from lockdown blues and the endless news cycle. Neurologists argue reading fiction develops our empathy and improves our memory and creativity.

So here are seven amazing books to enjoy this Christmas.

Stay calm. Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People has been described as a “surprisingly sweet tale” for our anxious times. A failed bank robbery turns into a hostage situation where all the characters are simultaneously unlikeable and worthy of love. Its message is: “this wasn’t how life was supposed to turn out,” – an appropriate sentiment for 2020.

Forget Shakespeare. The most famous writer in history has only a supporting role in Maggie O’Farrell’s heartbreaking novel about the playwright’s formidable wife and her ill-fated son. Hamnet is set in 1596, another year of plague, and is a beautiful account of maternal love.

Get lost. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is an astonishing work of imagination about a labyrinthine house, filled with gothic halls and eerie statues. The only inhabitant is happy in his solitude until he discovers he is not alone. As the mysteries of the house unravel, the novel explores the line between solitude and loneliness.

Keep it real. Brandon Taylor’s critically acclaimed debut Real Life is a campus novel with a twist: Wallace is a black gay student in an academic world that is pitted against him. With subtle sophistication, Taylor uses this unique perspective to show how people can have inclusive values whilst still excluding others.

Serve the king. The first two books in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy charted the rise of Henry VIII’s advisor, from blacksmith’s son to king’s right hand. In The Mirror and the Light, we live and breathe Thomas Cromwell’s terrifying journey to the executioner’s block. Its achievement is to make this inevitable end feel uncertain, until the very last page.

Live another life. In a year when racism dominated the news, Brit Bennett takes a long view in The Vanishing Half, a “dark fairy tale” about race in America. Identical twin sisters grow up to live radically different lives because of one twin’s secret struggle to pass as white.

Fall in love. “So rarely is love expressed this richly, this vividly, or this artfully,” writes author Candice Carty-Williams of Bolu Babalola’s new book Love in Colour. Stories from world mythology are brilliantly retold for modern times, challenging the stereotypes and sexism in humanity’s oldest stories.

So will swapping the internet for a book make us happier?

Fully booked

Some say no, books are elitist. Millions of people have never read a book but still live rich, meaningful and happy lives. Readers brag about how much they know, but it is a solitary pursuit that cuts them off from the rest of the world. The internet, on the other hand, brings people together – something that has become especially important during this year of lockdown.

Others say yes, reading makes us happier. On the internet, everything grabs our attention and appears urgent and important. This quickly becomes emotionally and mentally exhausting. Reading is a slower and more focused experience, which gives us perspective and a deeper understanding of our world. And by exciting our imagination, it makes us more creative and happy.

You Decide

  1. What was the best book you read this year and why?
  2. Which invention has had the biggest impact on civilisation; the book or the internet?

Activities

  1. Design a new book cover for your favourite book.
  2. Write a one-page review of a book you have read recently. It can be positive or negative, but it should help others decide whether they want to read it. And it shouldn’t spoil the ending!

Some People Say...

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.”

Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924), Czech novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that reading changes the way we think. Laboratory experiments show that a character’s experience in a novel will activate the same part of the brain as it would if the experience was happening to us in real life. In tests, stories performed the role of a “flight simulator” for the mind, developing readers’ ability to understand unfamiliar situations and other people’s behaviour.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is around whether it is better to read fiction or non-fiction. Advocates of non-fiction argue that stories are a waste of time when you could be learning practical information and knowledge to use in real life. Proponents of fiction insist we also need to disengage and let our minds rest in order to learn effectively. Others suggest that the division is artificial and unhelpful. All good books tell a story, and all good stories contain an element of truth.

Word Watch

Medieval lockdowns
The most famous plague quarantine in literature is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353), in which a group of medieval Italians pass the time by telling each other one hundred stories.
Anxious People
The novel was originally published in Swedish last year. On its publication in September, the English translation shot straight to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Hamnet
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway’s only son died aged 11 in 1596. Scholars speculate that there may be a relationship between his death and his father’s writing, especially his 1599 tragedy, Hamlet.
Piranesi
The title and protagonist of Susanna Clarke’s novel are named after Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778), an Italian artist famous for drawing elaborate “imaginary prisons” with impossible geometries – two-dimensional shapes that can not be reproduced in real life.
Campus novel
A subgenre of fiction that uses the closed environment of the university campus to explore ideas about society and human nature.
Cromwell Trilogy
The first two novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up The Bodies (2012), both won the Man Booker Prize for fiction and were dramatised for the BBC in 2015.
Pass as white
The term “passing” describes when a person of colour or mixed ethnicity is accepted as white by the white majority. Passing as white has been a means of escaping racial violence and discrimination since the era of slavery.
Bolu Babalola
The British writer describes herself as a “romcomoisseur” who loves romantic comedies and wants “to tell stories about Black love because that's what I want to see more of in the world.”

Subjects

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