Our reading habits have changed with pandemic closures – here’s how


Raise your hand if, around 20 months ago, you thought you were taking advantage of the pandemic lockdown to do more reading.

Now, raise your hand if those good intentions really manifested themselves in a pile of unread books on your nightstand.

The pandemic has changed the way we live a lot over the past two years – how we shop, how we socialize, how we work. It also had an effect on our reading habits.

“What I noticed during the pandemic was that I was starting a book and sort of lost interest in it,” Natasha Rajah, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, told Montreal.

And it wasn’t just the number of books she normally read that was changing. “The quality of my reading has gone down.”

Before the pandemic, Rajah said she could easily read for an hour or two before going to bed. But she found she couldn’t keep her attention on a book anymore, so she stopped reading and turned to Twitter instead.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa Writers’ Festival, found books to be a loophole – a way of dealing with the reality of what happens when all isn’t right. .

“For me, it’s been really fascinating to realize that I have to deal with the things that I’m not comfortable with,” he said.

“The stories about suffering have actually been the most helpful at the moment because it’s like it puts it in a form you can metabolize. The kind of community you get by being on someone’s mind. another, in someone else’s heart. “

Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa Writers Festival, said being able to delve into a good book during the lockdown was a great form of escape for him. (Submitted by Sean Wilson)

Containment of reading habits

The pandemic has put a lot of stress on our brains – stress that many of us have never really lived with before. People reported mental health problems, having trouble concentrating, or just find motivation to get things done.

And those who weren’t able to work suddenly found themselves with hours to fill each day. Books seemed to help.

A Angus Reid Poll conducted in April 2020 asked Canadian adults with more free time during the first lockdown how they were filling that time. About 40 percent said they read more.

In terms of what they were reading – a smaller survey of Canadians conducted by BookNet Canada during a similar period found that of the 450 people who identified as readers, most (62%) said they hadn’t really changed what they read in terms of topic.

But 22% said they read more “informative” books, while 16% just looked for entertaining reads.

Books are seen in the window of a Vancouver bookstore. Polls suggest Canadians are reading more during the first pandemic lockdown. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

Reading is not always an escape

A quick glance at the types of books that topped North America’s bestseller lists over the past year also sheds light on how readers feel. They included books on race, reconciliation, politics and even plagues, which could confuse people who wanted nothing more from their reading than to escape the bad news surrounding the pandemic.

Those looking to find out more about what’s going on around them in real life might feel “a kind of moral obligation,” Clayton Childress, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said by email. It is “part of their identity as an individual, or socially as a person who enjoys being up to date and participating in conversations about current affairs.”

But another book that topped the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list in February 2021 was first published in 2014. The body keeps the score by Bessel van der Kolk deals with trauma and how to reconnect a traumatized brain. As of this writing, he is always at the top of the list.

Marcello Giovanelli helped launch the UK’s Lockdown Library Project to see what people were reading during the first wave of COVID-19. (Submitted by Marcello Giovanelli)

Marcello Giovanelli wanted to go beyond the bestseller lists.

The senior lecturer at Aston University in Birmingham, England was one of the researchers at the Lockdown Library Project, which investigated people’s reading habits during the UK’s first pandemic lockdown

Around 860 people responded to the social media call to participate in an online survey conducted by Giovanelli and his colleagues between July 1 and August 31, 2020.

While the full survey results are still being processed, researchers can already draw conclusions – they found that about two-thirds of those polled said they read more during that first lockdown.

“A lot of people talked about books like old friends,” Giovanelli said, and described reading as a kind of therapy – a space where they could escape safely. Her research also found that most of those interviewed said they were drawn to novels.

“If what’s going on in the real world isn’t particularly enjoyable, it can be even nicer,” he said. “If you have the time to do it, sure.”

Lack of time to read

It was another challenge. While some thought they would have more time to read, a third of people who responded to Giovanelli’s survey said they read less. Many of these people said it was because they no longer commute to work and the lack of train or bus trips meant less time to sit and read.

Children have dropped out of school and need special attention for home schooling.

Natasha Rajah, professor at McGill University, believes our brains will recover from pandemic stress. (Submitted by Natasha Rajah)

But for Rajah, the professor of psychiatry, it was just a matter of feeling that his brain couldn’t handle reading. She studies the cognitive neurosciences of memory, so she understands why it’s difficult at times like this to stay focused enough to read.

She says the combination of increased stress and anxiety from the pandemic, along with working from home with more distractions, means it’s harder for us to filter out unimportant noise and focus.

“And to kind of build that narrative in your mind, you rely on working memory, and you also rely on the ability to access what we call semantic memory – your knowledge of the world, you know, your knowledge. of what certain contexts evoke in you. ”

In other words, where following a story in your mind was once effortless and joyful, it has now become hard work.

The good news, says Rajah, is if you were an avid reader before the pandemic but have been struggling to read lately, don’t worry. The brain recovers.

“The brain is very plastic and you know, these aren’t lesions or… permanent changes in brain function. Our brains learn and adapt.

“And I believe in the resilience of the human brain. So I think we’re going to get over it.”


Written by Stéphanie Hogan. Interviews conducted by Kristin Nelson.

The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey that was conducted in two waves of representative randomized samples of 4,240 Canadian adult Angus Reid Forum members between April 1 and 6, 2020, and 2,129 Canadian adult members. of the Angus Reid Forum between April 4-6, 2020. We cannot accurately calculate a margin of error for methodologies with online surveys. For comparison purposes only, probability samples of these sizes would have margins of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

BookNet Canada’s conclusions have arrived via an online survey that was conducted among English-speaking Canadian adults by one of their panel partners. We cannot accurately calculate a margin of error for methodologies with online surveys. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of the same size would give a margin of error of +/- 4%, 19 times out of 20.


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