The Sunday Magazine

Our reading habits changed with pandemic lockdowns — here's how

The pandemic has changed a lot about how we live in the last couple of years, from how we shop and how we socialize to how we work. It's also had an effect on our reading habits, changing everything from how much we read to the kinds of books we choose.

Books about race, reconciliation, trauma and even plagues have been popular

A reader holds a bookmark over an open book. The pandemic has had an impact on how much people are reading, and what kinds of material they choose to read. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hands up if about 20 months ago, you thought you would take advantage of the pandemic lockdown to do more reading. 

Now, hands up if those good intentions actually manifested in a stack of unread books on your bedside table.

The pandemic has changed a lot about how we've lived in the past couple of years — how we shop, how we socialize, how we work. It has also had an effect on our reading habits. 

"What I've noticed happened over the pandemic is I'd start a book and then I'd kind of lose interest in it," said Natasha Rajah, a professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. 

And it wasn't just the number of books she'd normally read that changed. "The quality of my reading has gone down."

Before the pandemic, Rajah said she could easily read for an hour or two before bed. But she found she could no longer keep her attention on a book, so she'd quit reading and turn to Twitter instead. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa Writers Festival, found that books were an escape — a way to cope with the reality of what was happening when not all of it was good. 

"For me, it's been really fascinating, realizing that I do need to lean into the things that I'm uncomfortable with," he said.

"The stories about suffering have actually been the most useful in this time because it's like, it puts it into a form that you can metabolize. The kind of community you get from being in somebody else's mind, being in somebody else's heart."

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

Lockdown reading habits 

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

And those who weren't able to work suddenly found themselves with hours of time to fill every day. Books seemed to help. 

An Angus Reid survey conducted during April 2020 asked Canadian adults with more free time during the first lockdown how they were filling that time. About 40 per cent said they were reading more. 

In terms of what they were reading — a smaller survey of Canadians conducted by BookNet Canada during a similar time frame found that among the 450 people who identified as readers, most (62 per cent) said they hadn't really made any changes to what they were reading subject-wise. 

But 22 per cent said they were reading more "informative" books, while 16 per cent were just seeking entertaining reads. 

Books are seen in the window of a Vancouver book store. Surveys suggest Canadians read more during the first pandemic lockdown. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Reading not always an escape

A quick look at what kind of books were topping bestseller lists in North America over the past year or so also helps to shed light on how readers have been feeling. They've included books about race, reconciliation, politics and even plagues, which might confound people who wanted nothing more from their reading than to escape the bad news surrounding the pandemic. 

Those who seek out further reading on what's happening around them in real life might feel "a sort of moral obligation," Clayton Childress, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, said via email. It's "part of their identity as an individual, or socially as a person who likes to be on top of things and to participate in conversations about current events."

But another book that shot to the top of The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in February 2021 was first published in 2014. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is about trauma and how to rewire a traumatized brain. As of this writing, it still topped the list.

Marcello Giovanelli helped launched the U.K.'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 deeper than just bestseller lists.

The senior lecturer at Aston University in Birmingham, England has been one of the researchers on the Lockdown Library Project, which investigated people's reading habits during the first pandemic lockdown in the U.K. 

About 860 people answered the call on social media to take part in an online survey conducted by Giovanelli and his colleagues between July 1 and Aug. 31, 2020. 

Though the full survey results are still being processed, the researchers can already draw some conclusions — they found that around two thirds of respondents said they had read more during that first lockdown.

"Lots of people spoke of books as old friends," Giovanelli said, and described reading as sort of therapeutic — a space where they could safely escape. His research also found that most of the respondents said they gravitated toward novels.

"If what's happening in the real world isn't particularly pleasant, that can be extra enjoyable," he said. "If you've got the time to do it, of course."

Missing time to read 

That has been another challenge. While some thought they'd have more time to read, one third of people who responded to Giovanelli's survey reported reading less. Many of those people said that was because they were no longer commuting to work and the lack of train or bus rides meant less time to just sit and read.

Kids pulled out of school and needing homeschooling attention was another time sap. 

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

But for Rajah, the psychiatry professor, it was just about feeling like her brain couldn't handle reading. She studies the cognitive neuroscience of memory, so she understands why it's difficult in times like this to be able to stay focused enough to read. 

She says the combination of increased stress and anxiety from the pandemic, plus working from home with more distractions, means it's more difficult for us to filter out the unimportant noise and concentrate. 

"And to kind of build that narrative in your mind, you're relying on working memory, and you're also relying on the ability to access what we call semantic memory — your world knowledge, you know, your knowledge about 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, Rajah says, is that if you were an avid reader before the pandemic but have found it difficult to read lately, don't worry. The brain recovers.

"The brain is very plastic and you know, these are not lesions or … permanent changes in brain function. Our brain is learning and it's adapting. 

"And I believe in the resilience of the human brain. So I think we'll come out of this fine."

 Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interviews produced by Kristin Nelson.

The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey that was fielded in two waves among representative randomized samples of 4,240 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum between April 1 – 6, 2020, and of 2,129 Canadian adults who are members of 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 carry margins of error of +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

BookNet Canada's findings came via an online survey that was fielded to adult English-speaking Canadians 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 yield a margin of error of +/-4%, 19 times out of 20.

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