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Nostalgia, Escapism and Dystopia: How the Pandemic Has Affected Reading and Literary Trends

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of people around the world, in numerous and varying ways.

Not only has it caused huge trauma to individuals, families and communities who have lost loved ones and been directly affected by the virus, but it has also caused major upheaval to the way most of us go about our daily lives and approach the world around us.

While the long-term social impacts of the pandemic remain to be fully seen, patterns are starting to emerge. These show how our behaviours and habits have shifted as a result of the social isolation and uncertainty we have experienced over the past year and also hint at some of the lasting effects this experience will have upon us as the world moves back into a state of normalcy.

One key example of the way in which our lives have changed since March is how people have consumed media, including literature, over the duration of the pandemic.

Historically, periods of political and social upheaval have shaped literature, with literary movements reflecting and reacting to times of societal and economical stress and change.

For instance, European Romanticism was, in part, an artistic rejection of the Industrial Revolution, and a world that was seen as becoming more focussed on urbanisation and technological advancement. Likewise, social deprivation in 1930s America during the Great Depression inspired the first gritty detective stories, which were seen to partially reflect the destitution the period ensued. And WWI acted as a catalyst for literary movements like Modernism, with key figures like Virginia Woolf disrupting traditional writing conventions as a way of stylistically representing the shell-shock that was experienced by soldiers in its aftermath.

Though it may be too early to say exactly how the face of literature will be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are already seeing clear patterns in the way in which readers are approaching books as a result of it. These trends have shown that readers’ tastes have changed drastically in response to the uncertainty and, in many cases, fear that the outbreak of the coronavirus caused them. For some, books became a source of escapism from society itself, while others used them as a means to process the unprecedented events unfolding around them.

Broadly, readers’ responses to the pandemic can be split into three key trends: a search for nostalgia and safety, a need for escapism, and an embrace of dystopian social isolation.

Nostalgia and Safety 

The constant state of uncertainty that has become synonymous with the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many readers have sought a sense of safety and comfort from books.

Initial trends during the first national lockdown in the UK show many readers opting to re-read books, particularly classic works of literature. Waterstones reported a “significant uplift” in the number of online sales for classic novels at the end of March 2020, including those many generations of students have studied in secondary schools like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The tendency to re-read fiction shows readers’ need to engage in familiar plots, with emotional registers and developments they can anticipate. This, it would seem, helped them to avoid the surprises and suspense so synonymous with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Alongside this, nostalgia played a major role in readers’ preferences during 2020. Children’s literature sales soared during the peak of the first national lockdown; in April, English-language children’s book sales jumped by 93% in some areas. While this may be partially down to the rise in homeschooling due to the closure of schools, it also reflects adults’ reading tendencies. A survey conducted by Aston University last Autumn found that many people re-read books they had enjoyed as children, teens or young adults. In doing this, they used nostalgia as a form of self-soothing, as well to temporarily escape and distract themselves.

Children’s book sales have soared since coronavirus hit. Photo credit: Ben White

Escapism 

Escapism was also a central element of reading trends during the peak of the virus. In the UK and US, sales for genres that offered this to readers increased during the first wave of the virus outbreak. Fantasy and science-fiction both saw an increase in interest, but the highest spikes were in the thriller and crime categories. Mysteries and suspense-thrillers were some of the most popular in terms of sale trends during Spring and Summer last year. Louise Doughty, the award-nominated author of thriller Platform Seven puts these trends down to readers’ desires to be engrossed and distracted by books, but also to gain some form of “resolution”.

“[It is a] mistake to assume that during difficult times people want light, escapist reading or heartwarming tales”, she says. “Crime and thriller fiction […] are genres where mysteries are resolved; the dark thing happens but there is often resolution and/or explanation at the end.”

Dystopian Literature

Alongside the need for escapism and comfort, reading trends in 2020 saw many people responding to the pandemic by engaging in dystopian literature.

Waterstones reported an increased demand for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, all novels depicting post-apocalyptic or post-societal settings. Other reports showed that literature about social isolation, whether physical or metaphorical, also rose in popularity– Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, for instance, saw an increase in sales after March last year.

In this sense, readers used books that reflected their own experiences and feelings to allow them to process them. Literature, here, not only soothed and distracted, but also allowed a form of catharsis and healing to take place.

Book Trends

Aside from reading trends, social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have allowed us to gain an insight into other ways in which books have offered a form of solace and escapism during the pandemic. ‘Home libraries’ are gaining more and more interest on both platforms, with more than 5,000 people following the #homelibrary on Instagram, and hundreds more users on Pinterest pinning boards under the same category. Interest in building bookcases, bookshelves and other book displays also increased during national lockdowns in the UK, with searches for ‘build a bookshelf’ increasing by 100% after the first lockdown was announced at the end of March and ‘how to put up shelves” up by 82% in April 2020 compared to the previous year. This shows more than just an interest in reading books, but also an interest in being surrounded by them.

For literature lovers of all generations, books — and collections of them — have always symbolised ideals surrounding escapism and comfort. However, the unexpected events of last year have clearly resulted in more people seeking ways to fulfil these feelings. Re-reading, discovering, collecting and displaying books has been a way for people to do this, offering both temporary and long-term relief from the range of emotions the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it.

As we continue into the new year, and the hopes of a ‘return to normal’ vaccine roll-outs are bringing with them, it will be interesting to see how these trends are sustained and developed.

About the Author

Luna Williams writes for the Hairpin Leg Co.

Featured Image Credit and Further Reading

Featured image credit: freestocks

In our video series with Kevin McAlpin, we discuss another sort of pandemic-related change: the move to virtual classrooms. Watch that series to learn some valuable tips for coping in this environment as a teacher or other education professional.

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Nostalgia, Escapism and Dystopia: How the Pandemic Has Affected Reading and Literary Trends

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