Science fiction and fantasy

A Journal of the Plague Year

The Stand

Station Eleven

Pandemic Reading

15th April 2020

A pandemic virus rages, and normal life is changed beyond recognition. That sounds like the introduction to a sci-fi novel, but unfortunately it's not, it's life in 2020. With most of the world in a state of lockdown, confined to our houses except for essential trips, it would seem as though the activity of reading takes on much more significance.

How we read has changed

Very early on in the lockdown, and just before it was declared, there was a surge in book buying as people prepared for an extended period staying at home. Paperback sales rose in the third week of March, whilst ebook sales at Waterstones increased 400%. With bookshops and charity shops closed, and with online deliveries prioritising food and other essentials, physical books have become scarcer. Meanwhile, downloading an ebook comes without the guilt inherent in asking workers to handle and deliver a book to your door at a time when the virus could be on any door handle or surface.

So, ebooks or audiobooks it is.

What we read has changed

I love graphic novels, but I won't be buying any during the pandemic because they are much better read in paperback form than on my black and white ereader. The few times I have tried to read heavily illustrated books on my ereader it has slowed to a crawl. So for practical reasons, graphic novels will have to wait.

I've just finished reading Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which is an account of how the plague affected London in 1665, written with a great deal of historical accuracy. The parallels between that account and the Covid pandemic are interesting, and it makes absolutely compelling reading during an infection. Although the 17th century Londoners didn't have modern medicine, they understood the importance of social distancing in staying safe, and those who didn't respect it came to suffer. What are particularly interesting are the psychological effects of different stages of the plague on the Londoners. The account serves as a cautionary tale. It also resonates with the Covid pandemic with the quiet streets, the rash of charlatans trying to exploit the crisis, and deaths when people let their guard down too early. It's available on Project Gutenberg.

As well as this, there has been some interest in dystopian fiction such as Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven, Peter May's Lockdown, and Stephen King's The Stand.

At the same time, the appeal of lightweight, heart-warming escapism is extremely strong. Click here for mood-based book recommendations if you need to read something that's more comedy than tragedy.

Another trend has been people taking on "bucket list" books, those heavy, classic tomes they planned to get through during long weeks of lockdown. However, it turns out that lockdown is much harder than most people anticipated, and merely staying alive and keeping it together is an achievement. Between obsessing over the awful news, worrying about friends and family, entertaining and perhaps teaching children, stress baking, and taking much longer to plan and go shopping yet succeeding in buying half as much, time for reading is reduced. Most people's productivity is down, and that includes reading.

Amongst writers and creative types, who in normal times might thrive on going out less, this tends to come as a shock. But these times aren't normal. We're in a pandemic, and although an introverted disposition may make staying in more bearable, it doesn't insulate against the psychological trauma, worries, or extra effort involved in getting through the day. So if you've lost your reading mojo, don't worry, and go easy on yourself. It's one of the symptoms of being human.


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