As the lessons of the pandemic continue to be learnt, a new study from the University of Portsmouth and Copenhagen University has lifted a lid on the benefits readers took from novels during isolated periods of lockdown.
The academic led project, which included hundreds of respondents in the UK and Denmark, shows the many ways in which literature and books helped people through the pandemic. Reading, whilst not always easy during this time, made a significant difference to people’s lockdown experiences, helping them to think, to feel, to question, and to connect with others when social connection was often curtailed.
Dr Ben Davies, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Portsmouth, said: “It has been fascinating to see how important novels and reading were to people during the pandemic – and all the ways people used books to engage and learn, reflect, parent and care for others. There is an importance for governments to realise the significance of reading for any future lockdowns. Our message is to ensure people have ready access to books – they are crucial for people’s well-being and mental health.”
The study found novels brought focus to people’s lives. Unlike other forms of entertainment, they appreciated not being unable to talk, text and browse whilst reading. There was a 50/50 split between those reading for escape and others who enjoyed apocalyptic themes that mirrored circumstances in which they lived.
Re-reading became a comfort, with many going back to enjoying novels they first read as a younger person. Readers turned to novels as a way to travel vicariously, to explore the outside world when stuck indoors. Others used literature as a way to explore issues of race and racism during lockdown in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Reading became a form of politics for people who couldn’t go out and protest.
Alongside Christina Lupton, Professor of Literary and Cultural Theory at the University of Copenhagen, and postdoctoral fellow Johanne Gormsen Schmit, Ben has written a new academic book (released 17 November) detailing their findings. During the pandemic the pair noted that book sales were increasing, but wanted to know what benefits this brought readers. They set up a survey in 2020 and received around 800 responses from the UK and Denmark. From these results they identified 70 people to interview via Zoom.
The resulting book, Reading Novels During the Covid-19 Pandemic, is aimed at interested readers as well as other academics. Ahead of its publication, Professor Lupton said: “I’m so proud of the way so many voices have come together in this study – both our voices as scholars, but also the voices of readers around Denmark and the UK, who speak in such moving and interesting ways about the way literature shapes their lives.”
The study and book have been well received in academic circles. Sarah Dillon, Professor of Literature and the Public Humanities, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge, added: “This brilliantly written and meticulously researched book makes a major new contribution to literary studies.”