The Great British Book Boom: Why reading is making a comeback

Imagine escaping to a universe where people are dancing with merriment, drinking fine wine from goblets of silver and gazing at the stars overhead as night falls on the kingdom. A universe where you’re allowed to dance with your friends until your feet ache and you can’t keep your eyelids open. A universe that hasn’t been swept by a deadly virus that’s spreading faster than we can cope with or where we’re being forced watch our loved ones suffer over video call whilst the tyrants in power flock to their castles.

That universe exists. You just need a vivid imagination and about 600 pages of prose to find it.

This sense of escapism is just one of the reasons more and more people have turned their heads to reading during lockdown. People who haven’t lifted a book since school are now losing themselves in a sea of printed words, discovering worlds that are as far away from ours as possible to distract themselves from our sorry state of affairs.

A survey of 88 people confirmed that people have increased their reading time in the advent of the COVID-19 lockdown:

The proof is in the pudding: the UK’s biggest book retailer, Waterstones, reported a massive 400% increase in sales in the week before the nationwide lockdown began. Whilst some were busy stockpiling toilet paper and baked beans, others took to stocking up on reading material to see them through the coming months of isolation.

Whilst the figures seem encouraging upon first glance, one author is not convinced that lockdown is doing the literature industry massive favours:

“For authors, it will be the usual story: hard to make ends meet from writing alone, unless you’re a commercial mega-seller, and we will have to do our best to find new income streams.” Dr Beatrice Hitchman, author of Petite Mort told me.

“One worry is the demise of literary festivals and invited talks – those make up important revenue streams for many authors, and HE teaching jobs are likely to decline in the first instance too.”

Despite the sales, networking and marketing opportunities that have been taken from authors who are trying to make end’s meet, Dr Hitchman is confident that writers will find away to pull through:

“I suspect many authors of literary fiction will suddenly find it’s time to write that nasty true-crime epic they’ve had up their sleeve, or try to get into writing different kinds of content. But we’ll survive. We always do.”

That’s a sentiment that can be echoed into the all corners of the current climate. As lockdown restrictions start to ease and that dreaded R rate continues to decrease, we should take a moment to remind ourselves how far we’ve come in this pandemic and that we will see the other side of it, whether that be in a couple of months or a couple of years.

That being said, there is still a certain level of mindfulness that comes with being transported to a world that is far, far away from our current situation. Becoming attached to characters and storylines in page-turning novels gives the reader something to focus on other than the scary reality of our current climate.

Aside from her successful writing career and position as senior lecturer for Creative Writing, Dr Hitchman has also been taking time out to flex her reading muscles, and can attest to the positive impact it can have on our mental health:

“Books are really perfect for taking our minds off bigger problems. As David Mitchell (the author not the comedian) once said, a book can ‘stop a mind from scratching itself raw.’ I think more people are waking up to that.

“I also think that lockdown has forced people off the late-capitalist hamster-wheel of obligatory productivity, which means that there’s more opportunity to just sit and take time; lots of people are thinking about who they really want to be, not who their job tells them they are. Under these circumstances, they may be more likely to challenge themselves, or take the time to try out a book – a quieter, more reflective pleasure – than just fall into Netflix like they usually would.”

With extra time on our hands and the general lack of direction we’re all feeling at the moment, there’s never been a better time to immerse ourselves into the strong twists and turns of a well-written storyline.

If you’re struggling to find something to read during lockdown, Dr Hitchman has a number of sure-fire suggestions that will keep you entertained:

“At the moment, I’m reading Sarah Perry’s Gothic fantasia, Melmoth. It’s set in Prague in winter and tells the story of a mysterious, haunting, wanderer. There’s something really compelling about being transported somewhere completely other when the weather is so nice. Even though it’s bright sunlight outside, I still find myself looking over my shoulder every five minutes or so….”

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