Reading in Lockdown – digital reading finally comes of age?

I have been researching readers and reading in digital/online spaces for many years, and already follow a number of authors, reading communities and bookish accounts especially on Twitter and Instagram. My book, Literature and Social Media, which was published at the start of the lockdown, discusses the emergence and popularity of this kind of readerly activity which I also participate in as @onlinereaders1. During lockdown I have been working with fellow reading researchers Laura Dietz, Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo on project ideas relating to the impact of COVID on reading, using data gathered from social media. The following is based on some of our initial observations.

In the UK, lockdown has left the elderly and people with underlying health conditions ‘shielding’ for long periods of time. Many others have been working from home or have been ‘furloughed’, receiving full pay for several months while unable to travel to work or carry out their duties. So social media has been one of the ways in which people have been sharing ideas for filling their days.

Reading has clearly provided not just entertainment but a lifeline to the many users who report using books and discussion of books to cope, connect with others, and give comfort. Studies of bibliotherapy have previously pointed to the benefits of reading for wellbeing and mental health in periods of conflict or disaster. But discussions of reading on social media also show how reading is linked to productivity and self worth, perhaps reflecting the ways in which digital platforms such as Goodreads encourage us to constantly quantify our reading with reading targets and challenges. One example of this is users posting images of the latest pile of books they have acquired/completed during lockdown.

At the beginning of lockdown many social media users declared that they would use the opportunity to work on their TBR (To Be Read) books, or return to tackle ‘difficult’ books they hadn’t finished (Ulysses was mentioned frequently). There was also no shortage of recommendations for lockdown reading. Meanwhile, numerous surveys conducted by organisations such as The Reading Agency and The Bookseller have provided valuable data on reading practices and preferences during lockdown, including information on which genres people are turning to, increases in library membership, and the upsurge in sales of ebooks and audiobooks.

Discussions of reading during lockdown have perhaps inevitably led to renewed debates about digital vs print reading, particularly concerning whether or not books and all the paraphernalia that goes along with them will somehow become obsolete or will be replaced by the digital.  For example, under lockdown print books have to be ‘quarantined’ if they are handled by users in bookshops and libraries, whereas an ebook can be downloaded to our devices without fear of contamination.

In the image below, posted by a branch of the large UK book chain Waterstones in Swansea, South Wales, the store staff playfully imagine how bookstores may respond to the risks of contamination by displaying books with back covers and blurbs on display to minimise the chances of browsers picking up the books to browse.

Despite the valiant efforts of high street and independent bookstores to remind readers of what they are missing from the bookstore experience, it is undoubtedly the case that for most readers the crisis has necessitated more reliance on the digital.  We don’t yet know what the economic impact will be on bookstores as they begin to reopen. But many libraries, publishers, and commercial book loan services have responded by offering digital resources for free, such as the New York Public Library expanding access for 300,000 e-books or Audible (owned by Amazon) offering hundreds of free children’s audiobooks for the duration of school closures.

In the UK, early on in lockdown we also saw action from the government, who finally responded to a campaign to ‘Axe the Reading Tax’ (supported by many leading authors and publishers and featuring one of the storytellers from Reading on Screen) by announcing that the VAT on digital publications would be removed, directly reflecting the extent to which access to digital reading is seen as contributing to the public good during this time of crisis. The tax on Audiobooks has not yet been lifted, so the campaign goes on….

Discussions of digital reading, especially in the popular press, often use language that portrays the digital as a threat to ‘real’ books, a battle to the death where there can only be one winner. But in reality, as I and others have been arguing for some time, the digital more often than not takes us back to (re) discovering and appreciating the physical book, for example with the case of the ‘shelfie’ where users post images of themselves posing in front of their bookcases.

One of the most popular bookish accounts on Twitter during lockdown, Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility) has taken this to a different level, subjecting the bookcases of the rich and famous to close scrutiny. Here is an example in which the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks is subjected to the Credibility treatment …

Bookcase Credibility is a brilliantly witty response to the dramatic increase in our use of video call platforms (particularly Zoom) during lockdown, one of the consequences of which has been unprecedented access to other people’s homes, and the secrets contained within their bookshelves. There is a long history of people using books for display and as status symbols, but what is striking about the images appearing on social media is the sense of intimacy they create as we dissect not only the subject’s book choices, but also their curatorship of their reading.

Of course, Bookcase Credibility mainly focuses on subjects with nice homes and well stocked shelves, and that same level of privilege probably extends to most of the account’s followers. As a researcher of reading, I am increasingly conscious of the dangers of assuming that all readers enjoy the same access to reading materials that I do, or that all people who have access to books share my love of reading.  For example, in the current crisis, alongside the readers who report working their way through increased quantities of reading, there are also plenty who report being unable to read, sometimes due to environmental factors (e.g the distractions of homeschooling, ‘zoom fatigue’, missing the opportunity to read while commuting to and from work) but also because of the overriding sense of fear and hopelessness that can come from living through a pandemic.

The geographic and disciplinary range of our network will hopefully ensure that we are able to explore diverse responses both to the COVID crisis and to the digital as we start our discussions. In addition, our plan to create  digital stories with readers from underserved communities will ensure that their experiences are at the very heart of the project, providing a much-needed voice for those readers so often spoken for or written about in discussions of reading.

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