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Has the Pandemic Changed How We Read?

BY HANNAH GUY • January 14, 2022

Has the Pandemic Changed How We Read?

If you ask the average bookworm how they’d spend most of their time if confined at home, chances are good that reading more would be one of the most popular answers. While a global pandemic isn’t exactly what many of us might have imagined when considering leisure time at home, statistics show that the pandemic is changing not only how much we read but also the way we read.

The American Time Use study released last year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that from May 2019 to July 2021, Americans on the whole read almost 25 percent more than before. On average, most Americans over the age of fifteen increased their average daily reading from seventeen minutes a day to twenty minutes a day.

But it’s not just Americans who are turning to books. In How reading habits have changed during the COVID-19 lockdownThe Conversation reached out to their UK readers in an online survey, curious to see how much the pandemic had affected readers—asking not only how much people were reading but also what they were reading and if they were reaching for the comfort of a book they had already read (guilty!).

According to the survey, readers indeed found themselves with more reading time, either because of a lack of employment, lack of commute, or even due to the restrictions on their social and leisure time. Unsurprisingly, some readers weren’t looking for new adventures or material with new genres but were looking instead for more familiar and even predictable reads. Others turned to catching up on meatier classics they’d been wanting to read. Interestingly, a lot of readers also used their extra reading time as an opportunity to educate themselves about racism, policing, and other weighty social subjects.

In Canada, this tendency to read to educate ourselves was echoed. In CBC Radio’s Our reading habits changed with pandemic lockdowns — here’s how, Sean Wilson—the artistic director for the Ottawa Writers Festival—used his reading time for exactly that. “For me, it’s been really fascinating, realizing that I do need to lean into the things that I’m uncomfortable with,” he told the CBC. “The stories about suffering have actually been the most useful in this time because it’s like, it puts it into a form that you can metabolize. The kind of community you get from being in somebody else’s mind, being in somebody else’s heart.”

But while some readers were able to keep enjoying their books, others were struggling to keep their attention from wandering.

“What I’ve noticed happened over the pandemic is I’d start a book and then I’d kind of lose interest in it,” Natasha Rajah, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, told the CBC. She read less but also noticed that the quality of her reading had dropped considerably. Even her nighttime reading ritual was replaced by Twitter. She says she likely isn’t alone and that pandemic-induced stress, pressure, and anxiety can affect how we concentrate.

“And to kind of build that narrative in your mind, you’re relying on working memory, and you’re also relying on the ability to access what we call semantic memory—your world knowledge, you know, your knowledge about what certain contexts evoke in you.”

Marcello Giovanelli is a senior lecturer at Aston University in Birmingham, England, who has been researching the pandemic’s effect on reading in the UK. The Lockdown Library Project reached out to people on social media, and based on their 860 respondents, Giovanelli tells CBC that even without fully processing the data, they can see some clear trends, including that people are reading more—mostly novels.

“If what’s happening in the real world isn’t particularly pleasant, that can be extra enjoyable,” he said. “If you’ve got the time to do it, of course.”

This is great news for writers and authors, who might have seen their sales increase over the last two years. Best of all, people reading more will create a new a habit that will hopefully mean a continued increase in book sales for the coming months and even the coming years.

And for those who have lost a bit of their reading joy? Don’t panic. Your brain will bounce back.

“The brain is very plastic and you know, these are not lesions or . . . permanent changes in brain function,” Rajah told CBC Radio. “Our brain is learning and it’s adapting.

“And I believe in the resilience of the human brain. So I think we’ll come out of this fine.”

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