By Kirsty Miller
What has a year in lockdown taught us about literature?
It has now been over a year since the UK first went into lockdown, and what a year it has been. Filled with uncertainty, chaos and frustration, but experienced so differently by each of us. Some have found all the time at home extremely liberating and have been motivated to dig out their running shoes or discover a new passion. Others have felt unproductive and have struggled to enjoy their much-loved hobbies.
Reading is one activity that has prompted these mixed feelings. At the start of the pandemic, across Twitter, on the radio, and in newspaper columns, lifelong bookworms were despairing about their inability to concentrate and their lack of interest in reading. I could relate to this; during my final months of uni, I had looked forward to having more opportunities to get stuck into all the unread books on my bookshelf, but weeks went by and I realised I had been reading less than ever. The forced closure of book shops suggested that the lockdown, however long it lasted, would have a very negative impact.
However, in the end, it proved to be anything but a disastrous year for the book world. Although many small book shops have suffered, book sales overall have risen quite dramatically. You might think it was audiobooks and Kindle downloads that saved the day while paper copies sat unreached in closed shops, but in January this year, The Guardian reported that 200 million print books were sold in 2020, an increase of 5.2% on 2019. Books have apparently been relied on more than ever as a source of comfort and companionship.
Although book shops quickly closed, there were several options for those who wanted to support them. After initially being reluctant to read, I found myself engrossed in books again, spending hours reading in the garden and browsing new releases online. I have always bought the majority of my books from Waterstones; there are no independent bookshops anywhere near me and I found the Waterstones site so convenient. However, I saw discussions online about buying from independent booksellers, and I decided to order from a small shop that had recently started a delivery service. During a very turbulent time, with limited options for shopping and socialising, a new book felt like even more of a treat than normal, and I think lots of people must have felt the same way. The rise of online book delivery services and the creation of a UK branch of Bookshop.org, which benefits small local booksellers, means customers now have so many more options than Amazon and so many ways to gift books to those they have been unable to see.
Netflix and other streaming services have also arguably been playing an increasingly important role in shaping our reading habits over the past year. From the ‘Normal People’ craze early in the first lockdown to the success of ‘Bridgerton’ over Christmas, fans have been encouraged to explore the original versions of their favourite small-screen adaptations. More generally, the media has also had a powerful impact on people’s interactions with books. We live in such a connected world, where news spreads fast and young people use social media to inspire participation in global movements, but this has not eliminated the need for books or people’s interest in them. Take the Black Lives Matter protests last spring and summer – for weeks, books on racism and white supremacy topped the book charts as people attempted to educate themselves and find out more about the racist systems countless countries were founded on. People shared the names and titles of Black authors and book shops across social media and discussed how books had helped them to change their mindsets and attitudes. Far from providing competition for booksellers, the media has in fact resulted in more curiosity about reading, and books are still being valued as a vehicle for education and societal change.
So what does all this mean for the future of literature? Well, there have long been concerns that print books, and even perhaps reading itself, would die out, having been drowned out by the siren call of Netflix, but there have been no signs of this. Of course, after the pandemic, print book sales might decline again. We might even eventually reject print books completely for the convenience of e-books. There’s really no way to tell. But books were one of the main things people turned to in a period of crisis, and I think that’s a sure sign that people will always need literature. If one thing’s for certain, it’s that literature and language are a huge part of how we communicate with and relate to each other, how we understand our experiences, and how we make it through adversity. Literature makes us who we are and, in whatever form we choose, it will always be a fundamental part of life.