Culture

2020 end of year review: Books & Reading

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This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole. 

It would be a safe bet to presume that a lot of people found more time to rediscover their love for reading this year.

Globally, due to lockdowns, a lot of us have been reading more this year. Of the adults that participated in a US survey undertaken in March, 40% said they were reading more due to the pandemic. This figure was 35% of a global scale. Today, 86% of the world’s people are literate, and it seems that the pandemic has incentivised a reading revolution. 

It was the sudden closure of bookshops in March that prompted a sudden surge in the panic buying of books. As a bookseller, I had the pleasure of seeing this unravel before my own eyes and I was amazed to see that people were buying books relatively close to home. Popular fiction titles in March (that I noticed) included The Plague by Albert Camus – which documents an outbreak of a large epidemic in an Algerian city, and The Stand by Stephen King – a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel featuring a weaponised strain of influenza. 

Indeed, this seems to be part of a trend, as the popularity of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction has soared this year. A lot of the time, reading fiction is about escapism, but comfort can also be found in reading about experiences similar to what we are going through. But because it is fiction, it seems far enough away from home. 

All in all, despite the hardships faced by retail and the book industry this year, I strongly believe the pandemic has incentivised a reading revolution and the support of bookshops. Suddenly, as they are under threat, people are going out to support independent bookshops and slowly but surely diversifying from Amazon. Although the days of panic buying books are behind us, our reading habits have been an interesting trend to analyse, not only as a bookseller, but also as a keen bookworm myself. 

But what are people reading? Why are some genres doing better than others? And why has it taken a pandemic to witness the revival of reading? 

The pandemic forced many of us to do two main things – to spend more time at home and to slow down – the perfect breeding ground for a revitalisation of time spent with books. Before the pandemic, it was the norm to rush around and spend more time glued to our screens than fumbling through the pages of a heavy book. So, the pandemic gave people time to read and we turned to books for many reasons. Whether that be escapism, comfort, or knowledge – one thing is for sure, there has been a definitive boom. 

And this has also been seen within the publishing world – due to the pandemic, UK publishers in September experienced a phenomenon called “Super Thursday” where 600 books were published in one single day. The UK publishes on average, 184,000 books per year, which makes it the third biggest publisher after China and the US. As the world came to a halt back in March, so did we. With more time on our hands and a new appreciation for the idea of slowing down, many turned to reading to cope with the uncertainty of global events. Reading is a form of mindfulness – it forces us to take a break from the digital world and our lives – and purely focus on the words in front of us. 

People will get different benefits from reading – but studies in 2020 have made a strong case for the link between reading and improved mental health. It has been suggested to reduce stress by 68%, promote stronger analytical skills and increase our abilities of memory and concentration, reducing our likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia

All in all – people are reading more – and it is of no surprise, given the year we have had. But what are people reading? And is it in response to the political, social, and cultural changes unfolding around us?

On the one hand, you could argue that this year, across fiction and non-fiction, readers appear to be choosing titles in relation to the events going on around us. The rise in dystopian and fantasy fiction seen in March and throughout the year is just one example. The influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer, saw sales of titles such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi, soar beyond previous years. Reni Eddo-Lodge, became the first black British author to top the UK book charts. Inspired by social media and global activism across the world, readers felt the pull to educate themselves on all issues to do with race and diversify their reading habits. 

2020 has also been a staggering year for US politics, with Joe Biden winning the election in November, but the whole year had built up to that point. And the weight of the election result was even stronger, due to Donald Trump’s poor handling of the pandemic. As a result, The Promised Land, Barack Obama’s latest political memoir, sold 3.3 million copies in the US and Canada – just in one month. In this same vein, sales of Rage by Bob Woodward, published conveniently in September before the election – telling the convincing tale of how much Trump knew about the Coronavirus before the disaster unfolded – has surged in recent months. Similar meteoritic increases have been seen with Mary L Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, and Becoming, by Michelle Obama. As if the force of US politics isn’t already enough to infiltrate our lives, it also appears to be influencing what we read. 

Everybody reads for a variety of reasons, but this year, it feels like readers are trying to read books to understand and cope with the changing world around them. Whether that is trying to come to terms with a global pandemic, political change unravelling within the US, the persistent and systemic racial inequality seen across the globe, or the impending threat of climate change, readers are turning to books to understand the world.

Despite reading about heavy subjects during a period of tumultuous change, many of us have felt the benefits of what reading can do. 

But what about the future of retail and in-person bookselling? In recent weeks, we have been seen the news that UK retailers such as Debenhams, and the Arcadia group – that owns popular high street brands Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, and Miss Selfridge – are under threat due to the slump in sales caused by the pandemic.

During England’s lockdowns, bookshops such as Waterstones and other independents were classified as “non-essential” retail, meaning that they had to close for months on end. Of course, readers could still order online but the element of in store browsing was taken away. With Shakespeare and Co, an independent bookshop that sits opposite the Notre Dame in Paris, pleading for help in the summer, this prompted a re-assessment of the value of independent bookshops and their place in the world’s high streets. 

Despite its criticisms from the Booksellers Association, booksellers, and readers alike, the website, Bookshop.org, was set up in the pandemic to support independent bookshops and has had booming success. Initially, the website launched only in the US, but due to popularity it also started liaising with independent bookshops in the UK to support local bookshops. So far, they’ve raised £500,000 for independents. The website gives the customer the option to buy directly from a specific bookshop (if they have signed up) or to place a general order, whereby they will receive part of a earnings pool that is distributed evenly amongst shops. 

In many ways, there is no real need to buy books from Amazon anymore. Thus, in-store browsing has faced many restrictions this year, but the development of this deemed as “revolutionary” to some, has changed the way readers can support their local bookshops.

But the pandemic has made many realise the value of a bookshop is more than the retail service they provide. Having been back at work for the first time in ten months, I’ve been chatting to customers about how they love to be able to browse in a bookshop again and receive personal recommendations from booksellers. For some people that come in, it can be their only form of social interaction in the day or even throughout the week. So, people really value the social element of bookshops and their place within the wider community. Many bookshops will hold book clubs, host author events and will support the local community in other ways throughout the year too, which has all been cut off due to the pandemic. But without them, our towns and cities would be depleted. They serve so many different purposes – and are places where ideas and the imagination can run freely – this, we must support them as much as we can.

With the sale of printed books contributing more to the American economy than digital ones and people globally saying they have read more due to the pandemic, we can clearly say that we are currently living through a reading revolution. The popularity of reading has undoubtedly always ebbed and flowed throughout history, but it is from living through a global pandemic – and the experience of social and cultural change- that many have found comfort in stories, alternative worlds, and pinnacles of knowledge and history. 

For many, the pandemic made us realise that social media wasn’t that interesting, and in fact, reading rather than scrolling was better for our mental health. There are numerous factors to consider – but the conclusion is obvious. This year, we have all read more or more importantly, rediscovered the value of reading; and what a beautiful process that has been. 

23, aspiring writer/journo and history graduate. My interests include national politics, areas of social inequality, culture, and anything literature related. Tweet me: @vdaniels_

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