Blog | What the Country is Reading During this Pandemic

September 29, 2020

What the Country is Reading During this Pandemic

(as written by Stephanie Merry & Stephen Johnson of The Washington Post)

The Washington Post asked readers in early May and mid-August about the books that resonated with them. What follows comes from more than 1,600 submissions.

This year, perhaps as never before, our reading habits reflect our precarious reality. As the country has muddled through a deadly pandemic and a racial reckoning under a cloud of exhaustion and dread, we’ve used books to escape the present, inform our beliefs and educate our homebound children. We’ve found catharsis in apocalyptic science fiction and comfort in romance, advice in self-help guides and a moment of peace, thanks to children’s activity books. Most strikingly, since the death of George Floyd in May, we’ve flocked to books about race and social justice.

Data collected from publishers, libraries, associations, data firms and readers of our website provide a snapshot of book trends during the spring and summer of 2020. Together, these literary choices mirror our collective mood.

In May, the five most read authors were:

  1. Erik Larson – The Splendid and the Vile

“In addition to being a very good history of Britain at the start of World War II, it’s a very good description of great leadership during very difficult times,” wrote Steve Pascale of Weaverville, N.C.2.

2. Hilary Mantel – The Mirror & the Light

Judith Chopra of Burlington, Ontario, wrote of “The Mirror & the Light”: “It allowed me to go somewhere else — I told my family not to disturb me in the 16th century — because it was so completely immersive. I had to ration myself so that I didn’t finish it too quickly.”

3. Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

“‘Station Eleven’ was my favorite book of 2014, and returning to it during the pandemic was strangely comforting,” wrote Melissa Stevenson of Menlo Park, Calif. “The novel thrums with a beating humanist heart, and asks us to consider not only staying alive, but finding things and people to live for.”

4. Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

“It shows how an entire world can exist within four walls,” Barbara Doran of Silver Spring, Md., wrote, “Now, many of us are trapped in our homes; we can make them our world.

5. Albert Camus – The Plague

“What is so surprising is how [‘The Plague’] describes so well what is happening to us now,” wrote Janice Dole of Salt Lake City. “I don’t understand how people in our society don’t have more knowledge today than they did in the past….people still act from emotion and not reason.”

In August, the five most-read authors were:

  1. Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half

“I feel like it’s important in these times to read books about the Black experience in the United States,” Diane Starke of El Paso wrote.

2. Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped from the Beginning

Tracy Spangler of South Orange, N.J., wrote: “As a White person, it made me angry and ashamed — that this is the reality, and that I wasn’t taught very much of it as a student growing up here.”

3. Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall, Bringing Up the Bodies & The Mirror & the Light

Heather Feeney of Meridian, Idaho, remarked on “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”: “Reading these for the first time (and intending to take up ‘The Mirror & the Light’ very soon) has given me occasion to reflect on my personal values and on my purpose as a government employee in this time of uncertainty, turmoil and even death.”

4. Isabel Wilkerson – The Warmth of Other Suns

“The Warmth of Other Suns” is a “a masterpiece that’s changed and deepened my thinking about racism in America,” wrote Linda Kusserow of Minneapolis.

5. Jeanine Cummins – American Dirt

“‘American Dirt’ was a blisteringly paced thriller with a heartbreaking message,” wrote Shelly Wiltshire of Richmond. “I know it’s been controversial, but I found the insights to the migrant story meaningful and the ‘nowhere else to turn’ scenario horrifyingly relatable.”

While some are turning to tough, frightening stories, like Chuck Wendig’s sci-fi thriller Wanderers, many tend to avoid the (almost) real-life disaster books in favour of something more uplifting such as Charlie Mackesy’s gem, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, or a comforting historical romance that is filled with normal day-to-day activities such as Jane Austen’s ever popular Pride and Prejudice.

Patrick Hughes, Sales and Marketing Manager for Central Recovery Press based in Las Vegas, made this observation, “Publishing maintains a role in finding solutions to problems. People will always grab a book.” This observation and prediction for the publishing world bodes well for those of us who are not only voracious readers but make it our business to “know” books.