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Reading in Quarantine: Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

And yet, things are not looking quite so rosy from the publisher’s perspective.

Here’s the bad news. It turns out that COVID has wreaked havoc on reading, or at least, on buying books.

With the cancelling of book launches and literary festivals and arts events, and the closing of bookstores, people have bought markedly fewer paper books since the middle of March. To put a number on it, 10% less. While books are being bought on-line through bookstores, Amazon, and authors’ or publishers’ websites, they still don’t match the numbers that were bought before lockdown.

It’s a measure of how much we value face-to-face interaction that even with the technological alternatives widely available and easy to use, we just don’t use them as much. If we are forced to buy on-line, we choose instead to not read.

It’s unfair to blame computers for everything. There seems to be a downturn in reading. Oliver J Robinson, neuroscientist and psychologist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, explains why.

With the pandemic, we have a high degree of anxiety, even fear. This creates a fight/flight response. But there’s nothing to fight and no place to run to. So this response can’t resolve itself one way or another. Because of the uncertainty of what’s going on and how this will end, we live with a permanent anxiety. Like a bug in amber, we’re frozen. We remain on edge, unable to relax enough that we permit ourselves to getting lost in a good book.

While Dr Robinson warns against generalising and makes clear that different people cope with anxiety differently, he notes that anxiety reduces our working memory. So we have to work harder when we read because we can’t easily store characters’ names and plot details in our short-term memory, even though we’d just read them.

This contention is back by recent figures showing that people are buying more “happy reads,” as we call them. Light-hearted, undemanding escapism. So the good news is that it’s not our fault if we can’t buckle down and finally get through War and Peace. You can put that one back on the shelf beside every other classic you’ve never managed to plough through. For me, that would be Moby Dick. And Ulysses. And the Mill on the Floss. Actually, it’s quite a long list.

And more good news: What I hear anecdotally is that people who couldn’t read at the beginning of the crisis are now returning to reading with a vengeance. As we become more comfortable with the new normal, as the restrictions ease, we are rediscovering the gift of a well-written novel.

This experience of long-term uncertainty and low-level anxiety gives us a taste of what it must be like to live under a dictatorship, where one has to be hyper aware at all times of saying or doing the wrong thing. The cost of transgression is high, and due to shifting political winds, what exactly constitutes a transgression is unpredictable.

Sylvia Vetta wrote a book called Brushstrokes in Time about life in post-Mao China. Based on extensive interviews with Qu LeiLei and years of research, she wrote of an accidentally political art movement. It’s all true, except for the fact that Sylvia novelised it. While all the artists wanted to do was paint freely, it was unclear if they would get permission, partial permission or outright oppression. It was always negotiated. And all the resolutions were permanently uncertain. Those in the Stars Art Movement were finally exiled, like Qu LeiLei and Ai WeiWei. Which is a resolution on sorts.

I wish that we could banish COVID as easily as the Chinese government dismissed its dissident artists. But we can’t because bugs have gone global. And as China discovered, so has everything else. Qu LeiLei, who started the Stars Art Movement, ended up in Oxford where he met Sylvia Vetta and told her about it and his life. The poor man has been cursed with living in interesting times. Sylvia found me, an indie publisher in London, and I was moved, informed and entertained by Brushstrokes in Time. So I published it. An American audiobook firm bought its audio rights and turned it into a fabulous audiobook, using a Chinese American with the last name of McLaughlin. And the German translation is going to be launched soon.

For those of you who are miffed that China’s wet markets managed to grind our economy to a halt and kill close to 50,000 of our citizens, get your revenge — read a book.

And raise your glass to anyone who managed to get much of anything done during these uncertain times.


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