The lockdowns of 2020 left no industry unscathed. Bookshops were forced to close for two extended periods from 23 March until 15 June, and then again from 5 November until 2 December. But the publishing industry showed remarkable resilience outside of the lockdown periods, when the nation sought comfort in literature’s imagined worlds.
According to Nielsen research firm, print and digital sales in 2020 grew by 8.7% in volume and 8.5% in value compared with 2019. This equates to 252 million books bought across print and digital formats, worth £1.7bn.
More spare time, keeping entertained, and providing an escape were cited as the three main reasons for the increase in people’s reading habits. The desire to learn something new, and personal development became increasingly influential as the lockdown progressed.
However, these categories ignore literature’s ability to provide us with a sense of human connection. To remind us that we are not alone. As Alan Bennett wrote:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
The survey shows that many people turned to books as a form of entertainment or an escape. However, it is harder to quantify how literature impacts readers on a personal level.
Most of our day-to-day human interactions (in non-lockdown times) occur within the comfortable bubble of our own self-constructed world. We communicate and exchange ideas with those who reinforce and reflect certain aspects of ourselves, creating our own social echo-chambers.
As many times as we challenge family members about their political views over the dinner table, or discuss difficult topics with friends, we rarely encounter radically new perspectives.
Paradoxically, the painful reality of lockdown might have expanded our connection to a wider range of perspectives through books.
As George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones book series, wrote:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”
Viewing literature as simple escapism disregards its profound impact upon readers and how they perceive the world around them. Of course, what we take from books varies according to readers, contexts and genres. During the first lockdown, crime fiction was the most popular among the British public. Readers were drawn to the comfort of invariably finding a solution to the problem, assured that good always champions over evil. As the lockdown progressed, book sales reflected an increased interest in social justice books. Recently, a surprising trend shows a boom in sales of Russian classics, typically comprising eight hundred pages and more.
Whatever the preferred genre, readers may have underestimated the full impact of their new lockdown hobby. Psychologists and philosophers have debated the cognitive value of literature for centuries. Broadly speaking, there is a consensus that reading literature enhances the reader’s understanding but does not necessarily provide new knowledge.
It has been suggested that fictional stories foster empathy in readers who understand emotions more clearly in real life. The enlarged comprehension that people are believed to gain from literature enhances their ability to inquire and invent, connect and clarify, discover and reject. However, such experiences can only be evaluated from the inner perspective of the reader. It is therefore very difficult to measure how the benefits of literature manifest in the real world. Looking to the literature itself can provide clues as to how authors wanted to inspire and shape their readers’ understanding.
With bookshops closed during lockdown, many people turned to their own shelves for reading material. For me this meant revisiting Harper Lee’s familiar classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. Told through the eyes of a child, the novel is about understanding other human beings that society deems fundamentally different to oneself. Lee’s tale challenges the nonsensical attitudes of race and class in America’s Deep South in the 1930s and encourages readers to examine their own prejudices.
Scout Finch, the book’s young narrator and protagonist, is told by her father Atticus:
“you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Clearly, Atticus’s advice is also directed at readers, who are given a glimpse of the world from different perspectives. At the end of the novel Scout stands on her neighbour’s porch and feels satisfied with her new understanding of humanity.
Harper Lee’s message of fostering unity seems more poignant than ever in our deeply divided and disconnected world. So if we have learnt anything from those long hours of lockdown reading, we will do as Scout did. While adhering to social distancing, we will stand on our neighbour’s doorstep and contemplate the world from their perspective.