In just about every household in America, one is bound to find an ever-looming stack of books from the Barnes and Noble down the street, untouched since their purchase years ago. There are few people who actively dislike reading, and yet, everyone finds themselves too busy to pick up a book during the day, or too tired to attempt a chapter at night. But with offices, stores, and schools worldwide shuttering to stop the spread of COVID-19, people of all ages and backgrounds suddenly found an abundance of free time in which to pick up new hobbies. Chief among them: reading literature. Despite booksellers and storefronts being closed, fiction book sales went up 33% in the United Kingdom. In the U.S, general activity books for children saw a 128% rise. In a time where almost nothing could be said for certain, the public found solace in unwavering plots and fictional worlds dripping with escapism. When rumors and misinformation about the pandemic ran wild, readers focused on reassurance from mental health experts and advice authors.
One of the genres with the most undeniable rise in readers was romance. With isolation and physical distance becoming a necessity, even the most introverted of people were craving the regular flow of social interaction that had been disrupted. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs wasn’t wrong: once basic physiological needs and safety are accounted for, humanity seeks out feelings of love and belonging. Combine this with the influx of teens and young adults becoming more comfortable with their sexuality and the emphasized importance of Pride month in lockdown, and you get books like Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Both books tell tales of tragic love stories between ambitious young men, one couple in Ancient Greece and the other in modern-day New York City. Though both books became prominent conversational topics after their respective publishing dates in 2011 and 2017, their sales and reputations saw an exponential rise last year, quickly being established as classics for young LGBTQ+ teens.
Over the summer of 2020, a national conversation began over the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the unjust deaths of people of color by the hands of the police nationwide, most notable among them George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. A national reckoning was, and still is, at hand. Regardless of age, race, identity, or religion, people felt an unprecedented urge to educate themselves on America’s racist history. This came in the form of nonfiction books such as Women, Race and Class by the renowned Angela Davis, and stories like The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet. For allies, however, the movement sparked something entirely different: a reckoning with internalized racism. It’s no wonder books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Dr. Robin DiAngelo reached the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List in 2020, despite being published two years prior.
Also, in the nonfiction category of the list, was The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. With a majority of Americans working from home and students attending school online, a push for mental health awareness was entirely unsurprising. Things previously characterized as taboo, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as behavioral disorders like ADHD and Conduct Disorder, became a part of the conversation. The pressures of keeping communities safe combined with a need to upkeep social interaction, all under an umbrella of political turmoil, took a toll on even the most mentally balanced of people. This also meant that topics such as spirituality and psychology saw a rise in popularity as well, chief among those titles Think Like a Monk: Train Your Mind for Peace and Purpose Every Day by Jay Shetty. In a time with an unparalleled amount of ambiguity and confusion, turning to the constants of spiritual figures and teachings gave solace to people around the globe.
At the end of the day, the titles of books that rose to the top over 2020 weren’t necessarily contrasting from years past– what changed were readers’ perspectives. Eyes became more cynical and yearning for a distraction or hope and advice. Where the pandemic stole spirit and optimism, it created a burgeoning fountain of creativity and artistic output. The reading industry will see the effects of it for years to come, both in reading trends and in the concepts of newly-published novels like Growing Up Online, perhaps, or Readjusting to a Social Life. In light of communities that were torn apart by the distance, the worldwide net of readers was brought together closer than ever.
About the Author
Stella Garner (she/her) (also known by stella marie) is a high-school student and writer based in Las Vegas. Her work focuses on the music industry, film and literature, and politics, and can be found in local projects such as For the Culture Las Vegas. She is inspired by authors such as Haruki Murakami, Richard Siken, Mary Oliver, and Kurt Vonnegut. In her free time, Stella writes poetry (and hopes to publish a collection one day), plays piano and accordion, and rollerskates. Her other indulgences include: crosswords, 80s synthpop, oversized shirts with ironic messages, Coke Zero, and the novel Norweigan Wood.