Keep calm and read on

Becca Challis on why books have been a lifeline during lockdown

Over the last week, I’ve travelled to a Chinese university, pondered on what it’s like to be a blue whale and visited the Shire for a second breakfast. Yes, this may all be in my head, but while we stay home during the lockdown, reading gives us the chance to travel elsewhere, to escape and live hundreds of other lives. Whether you’re into fiction, biography or maybe you haven’t read in years, now is the best time to pick up a book and let your mind wander. 

A 2015 study from the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society examined patterns in those who read regularly. Their results are hugely applicable to self-isolation and demonstrate the multitude of benefits from reading. The study found regular readers ‘felt happier about themselves and their lives’ and just thirty minutes reading a week ‘produces greater life satisfaction, enhances social connectedness and community spirit, and helps protect against and even prepare for life difficulties.’ A fifth of respondents also found reading helped them ‘to feel less lonely’, so picking up a book now can provide a great boost to our mental wellbeing. 

Perhaps you already have a pile of books you’re ready to work your way through, but if you’re short on reading material there are lots of options. The book community has rallied together to support readers and help them find comfort in isolation.

While many indie bookshops have closed their physical doors, some have created delivery and collection options for their communities. Topping & Co. Booksellers is operating a postal order service across the UK, and Mr B’s Emporium runs a recommendation scheme, posted directly to your door in brown paper with a wax stamp. Here are great opportunities to support local businesses and help ensure that our beloved bookshops remain open after the current crisis.  

Similarly, libraries have adapted to closures by finding creative ways to support their community. Most have online portals, or apps like BorrowBox, which allow you access to books, movies and other archives, plus newspapers and subscription magazines. The majority have updated their policy to auto-renew any books you have borrowed and remain active on social media to answer questions and give advice.

Aside from buying books or borrowing them, there’s a wealth of reading resources available online too. If you’ve been thinking of giving Austen or Dickens a go, Project Gutenberg has a huge variety of free downloadable classic texts. FreeBooksy has a range of free titles and Scribd is running a 30-day trial, which includes the bestseller lists. 

Or, perhaps you want to read something entirely different? The Poetry Foundation has an extensive range online, or you can sign up for their ‘Poem of the Day’. You could also read the scripts of your favourite movies, or those you missed at the cinema. IMSDB has a variety available to download; I loved reading Little Women and getting into the mindset of Greta Gerwig. If you’re after shorter reads, magazines including Be Kind, Time Out, Vogue and Granta are offering free digital versions to help those searching for reading material.

Listening to audiobooks can be a very relaxing experience. Both Audible and Penguin Random House are offering free access to children’s audiobooks, which include Harry Potter, Jane Eyre and Moby Dick among others. LibriVox is another valuable resource of free titles and Spotify hosts literary podcasts and audiobooks too. Actors and theatre companies are also being creative in bringing drama into our homes; check out Patrick Stewart’s ‘#ASonnetADay’ and the productions by the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe released on YouTube. 

To me, the most important find of the study is how reading can help us to connect socially. The community response to lockdown is wonderful evidence, as villages and towns across the country have set up book-swaps in telephone boxes, post-boxes and even doorsteps, to exchange books with neighbours and keep everyone entertained – at a safe distance. 

This is also being done globally, through social media. Book clubs have gone virtual, as existing groups take their meetings online, and larger digital clubs post their thoughts to social media. One popular group is ‘Beth’s Book Club’ (@bethsbookclub_), run by blogger Beth Sandland on Facebook and Instagram. Beth believes that ‘being a member of an online book club is an amazing way to find new things to read whilst feeling like you’re a part of something.’ The social aspect helps provide ‘some motivation if you sometimes struggle to pick up a book’ and ‘the community spirit is really uplifting, especially right now. We always say the best part is you can get involved from your sofa wearing pyjamas!’ She also agrees that ‘books are the best form of escapism… it’s just you and the pages. Momentarily, the rest of the world fades away! I think that’s the true magic of reading… it offers a moment of calm in the chaos.’

Authors have been encouraging reading during isolation by offering their recommendations. From newspaper articles by the likes of Nick Hornby, Elif Shafak and Will Self, to tweets and Instagram stories, you can learn more about your favourite authors, and even read what they’re reading too. Children’s authors are also here to help: reading their books and doing live Q&As on social media, using the hashtags ‘#operationstorytime’ and ‘#savewithstories’ to keep our little ones occupied. This all contributes to the social aspect of reading: the collective experience of books and unity of being in this together.

So, it seems that now really is the time to get cracking with the Women’s Fiction Prize longlist, or the books you’ve noted down throughout the year. Maybe download an eBook and read alongside thousands of others in a new online community, sharing your thoughts, ideas and experiences. You can achieve the escapism reading brings, feel closer to others and more confident in dealing with the challenge of the current situation. After all, as Jhumpa Lahiri said, ‘That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.’

  • Becca Challis