The great escape: reading booms in lockdown

A good read: Last night was #ReadingHour in celebration of World Book Night.

Is reading fiction escapist? With half of the world’s population under lockdown, sales of novels have rocketed. People are turning to stories to keep themselves company and pass the time.

“It takes me to another, better place, and allows me to escape the current situation for a while.”

So says one respondent to a survey by the Reading Agency, on why she is reading fiction during the lockdown.

And who could blame her?

Hogwarts. Narnia. Middle Earth. Fiction lets us leave our grim reality behind, travelling from inside our homes to incredible places, meeting extraordinary people, and forgetting our anxieties.

It certainly seems that many are feeling this way.

Released to mark yesterday’s World Book Night, the Reading Agency’s survey shows that a third of British people are reading more fiction since the lockdown began.

The figure is even higher among 18-24 year olds, at almost 45%.

But are we really trying to escape when we read fiction, or do novels in fact bring us closer to reality?

Until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, making books much more widely available, very few people in Europe read at all. It was a luxury reserved for the very wealthy and the monks who would copy out books by hand.

What’s more, reading was normally done aloud as a sociable, educational activity.

In AD400, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote with shock about Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Why? Because when he read, he read in silence – “his voice and tongue were quiet”.

Even as literacy increased and silent reading caught on in the 1700s, books weren’t common. If you owned any book at all, it was likely to be the Bible: a tome to consult for direction, education, and self-improvement, sure. But not for escape.

The novel – fiction as we know it today – also began its rise in the 1700s. But works such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe weren’t exactly escapist either. Their characters’ journeys to self-discovery were examples for readers to follow.

People used the early novels to make sense of their changing world and how they fitted into it.

And that remains true today. The Reading Agency’s survey shows that books about fictional epidemics have seen a huge rise in sales – up over 1000%.

If this is how we respond to a pandemic, is reading fiction really that escapist?

No escape from reality

Of course not. When we are absorbed in a good novel, we are not getting away from reality but closer to it: engaging with the truth of human emotion and how we relate to the world around us. By reading fiction we train our imagination – studies have shown it makes us more empathetic. The great American novelist Ursula K Le Guin goes even further, arguing that “we read books to find out who we are”.

But others say that at times of crisis, it is irresponsible to focus on made-up stories. We ought to be educating ourselves about the situation by keeping up with the news and learning from non-fiction texts. Besides, getting lost in a novel is a luxury unavailable to those whose lives have been badly affected by the pandemic – compassion for fictional characters isn’t much help.

You Decide

  1. When the global coronavirus pandemic is over, what would you rather read about it: a novel or a factual history book?
  2. Is reading mainly a solitary or a sociable activity?

Activities

  1. Write a 500-word story about the day lockdown was announced. It can be based on what you did that day, or completely made up. How will you make sure that someone reading it in 100 years understands how that day felt?
  2. Compose a five-question survey about reading habits under lockdown. Example questions could be whether people are reading more, and whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction. Get members of your household and your class to take the survey. Produce a short report on the results.

Some People Say...

“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive.”

James Baldwin (1924-1987), American novelist, essayist and activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that fiction sales have risen by about a third in the UK, and sales of education texts are up by 234% – unsurprising, given that schools are closed. People have also been buying puzzle books and colouring books – great for passing the time. Various scientific studies have linked reading fiction to improved social skills.
What do we not know?
Although there are many different opinions on why we read and the effects it has, we can’t ever truly know. There is something special and unmeasurable about the relationship between a novel and each of its readers. As the novelist Zadie Smith puts it, “A book can try to modify your behaviour, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free.”

Word Watch

Respondent
Someone who has replied to a questionnaire or survey.
The Reading Agency
A UK charity that supports people to read more, and more confidently.
Johannes Gutenberg
A German goldsmith, inventor, printer, and publisher. His invention of the printing press in 1440 meant that books could be mass-produced and knowledge could spread around the world. Many historians see this as the beginning of modern history.
Saint Augustine of Hippo
A Christian bishop and theologian whose writings were central in the development of early Christianity. His book Confessions is believed to be the first Western autobiography, and describes his naughtiness before becoming a Christian.
Tome
A very big book.
Daniel Defoe
An English trader, writer, journalist, and spy. His novel Robinson Crusoe, about a man who survives for 28 years on a desert island, is considered one of the first English novels. He also wrote a novel called A Journal of the Plague Year, about the bubonic plague in London in 1665, sales of which have hugely increased during the coronavirus pandemic.
Empathetic
Able to imagine how someone else is feeling.

Subjects

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