Comfort, Escapism or Dystopia: How the Pandemic has Affected Reading Trends

By Luna Williams |  23 March 2021

Reading & Literary Trends

The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced our lives in a number of unprecedented ways. Aside from the direct trauma the virus has caused  to many people around the world, the civil restrictions that have ensued have also massively influenced our everyday habits and the ways in which we go about our daily lives. Among several other things, the UK lockdown  has drastically changed the way in which we consume media, including literature. 

Historically, periods of major political and social upheaval have shaped literature, with literary movements reflecting and reacting to times of societal and economic stress and change. 

For instance, WWI acted as one of the many influences for literary movements like Modernism, with many key writers like Woolf and Lawrence, disrupting traditional writing conventions as a way of stylistically representing the shell-shock that was experienced by soldiers in its aftermath. Equally, European Romanticism was born (in part) out of a reaction to urbanisation and industrialisation during the Industrial Revolution. And the 1930’s American depression saw the birth of the hard-boiled crime genre that is still popular today, being influenced by the deprivation the period caused.  

With social plans temporarily halted due to stay at home orders, reading has grown in popularity since the UKwent into lockdown on the 23rd March 2020. Though it may take several years before we are able to clearly see how this global crisis will spark and influence literary movements, three prominent threads have already emerged from our pandemic reading that may hint at trends we can anticipate over the next few decades. 

Nostalgia

Firstly, the comfort of nostalgia has driven many of us to re-read our old favourites or work through the classics. UK sales of classic books spiked by 35% in the first few weeks of lockdown, including books many now twenty/thirty-something’s read at school, such as The Great Gatsby. At a time when many of us felt unsure about the world around us as global events unfolded, rules changed by the day and the pandemic case numbers grew larger, seeking comfort in known, predictable plots provided security in a time of uncertainty.

Escapism

Both fantasy and science fiction novels saw an increase in sales during 2020. Beyond these typically escapist genres, crime and thriller novels enjoyed considerable popularity during the same period. 

Thriller novelist Louise Doughty suggests that Thrillers and Crime stories, while exciting, actually achieve a very similar catharsis to classical and children’s literature in terms of providing resolution and comfort to readers. 

“[It is a] mistake to assume that during difficult times people want light, escapist reading or heartwarming tales” Doughty suggests. “These are genres where mysteries are resolved; the dark thing happens but there is often resolution and/or explanation at the end.” 

It’s possible that this genre appeals to people’s desire for a conclusion and somewhere definitive to lay the blame, which is something that has been lacking in the coronavirus pandemic. The concrete resolution of most crime and thriller stories could be an emotional lifeline for those struggling with a lack of answers in the face of the pandemic.

Dystopia

There are those who have also spent their time in lockdown reading books to help them process the changes in the world around them. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, which are all set in dystopian realities, have enjoyed an increased demand since last March.

In many ways, dystopian literature of this nature could have become so popular during this period because it helps readers to contextualise and process what is happening around them.

Book Ownership Trends

Along with a shift in literary trends has sparked a new appreciation of the way we own and display our books. Despite e-readers being widely available, it seems that physical books have offered a form of solace and escapism during the pandemic for many lovers of literature. 

‘Home libraries’ are gaining a huge interest, with more than 5000 people following the #homelibrary on Instagram and Google searches for the same term rising since the pandemic.   

Interest in building bookcases, bookshelves and other book displays also increased during national lockdowns in the UK, with Google searches for the term ‘how to put up bookshelves” up by 82% in April 2020 compared to the previous year. 

For many people that have turned towards reading in the pandemic, this sense of accomplishment might be a new or forgotten feeling hence this new wave of excitement. 

Books have always symbolised ideals surrounding escapism and comfort – feelings that are all currently in very high demand. Re-reading, discovering, collecting and displaying books seems to have been a way for people to feel these emotions, offering both temporary and long-term relief from the range of mental challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it.

As the pandemic continues to evolve over 2021 and the way we live continues to change with it, it will certainly be interesting to see how these literature trends are sustained and developed.

About Luna:

This article was written by Luna Williams from The Hairpin Leg Company, luxury DIY homeware designers.

Images sourced from Unsplash.
Featured photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Edited by Ailish Woollett.

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