The great escape: reading booms in lockdown
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.
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.
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.
Is reading fiction really that escapist?
No escape from reality
Of course not. 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.
- When the global coronavirus pandemic is over, what would you rather read about it: a novel or a factual history book?
- 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?
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 [change] your behaviour, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book, you are still free.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Able to imagine how someone else is feeling.