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Off the shelves 

As the lockdown chapter shows no signs of ending, reading habits are undergoing a change   

Restrictions due to Covid-19 have impacted a lot of things including the reading patterns. A market research firm named Avance Field & Brand Solutions LLP recently did an interesting survey. The survey found that the number of readers who spent more than half an hour reading newspapers is touching 72%, up from 42% pre-lockdown. The average time spent by these readers, which was earlier 38 minutes, is now touching 60 minutes on an average.

However, the survey didn’t highlight that many people are now reading newspapers online. They fear newspapers might carry the infection to their doorstep, although experts debunk this idea.

The apparent reason due to which people are spending more time on reading is — restrictions on commuting, due to which time to spend on other activities apart from work has increased.

Bristhi Guha, an Associate Professor of Economics at JNU says, “Since I am not commuting, I have more time to read but my time for reading has shrunk because of house work. I am also involved in writing and translation work, therefore I am reading less than many of my friends.” Arun Ameta, a social sector professional, feels the same. He believes that lockdown made him a voracious reader.

However, the current lockdown has affected the availability of books as well. Shops are closed and e-commerce websites can’t deliver. Publishers are facing difficulty selling books. Many publishers are trying innovative ways to engage readers — Juggernaut has made many books free to read online.

Webinars, panel discussion, live interaction between author and reader are important techniques that publishers are using now to promote reading. Marketing and promotion all has become online and social media is playing a crucial role. Indian language publishers who have been worst hit due to the pandemic are inviting authors to speak through Facebook Live, they are answering queries through live streaming. Rajkamal Prakashan, for instance, is inviting many authors to interact with readers. Authors like Pushpesh Pant, Rajesh Joshi, Mannu Bhandari have appeared on their Facebook page so far.

“Lockdown has affected parts of the publishing business, such as, new title releases, promotions, launches, etc. We are hoping that the lockdown will be lifted in a staggered manner which will allow bookstores to open for business soon, for example, the government in Kerala has decided to allow bookshops to open twice a week with certain restrictions in place. We are hoping such positive news inspires other territories to be open to such arrangements, of course, depending on the ground situation,” Nandan Jha, SVP Sales & Product, Penguin Random House India, told IANS.

Social media groups, clubs for readers who organise book meet are all active since lockdown. They are conducting e-meets. Bring your own book, a group for book lovers is organising online reading sessions for readers of different cities.

Meanwhile, many bookworms are reading whatever they have at home. Many are also exploring alternative ways of reading using means like Kindle and audio books.

For instance, Poonam Chatterjee, content writer, Socio Labs, is following an app called ‘Storytel’ to listen to stories by Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray that she used to read in her childhood.

Wider choice

The rise in popularity of certain books is not only the function of Amazon’s algorithms, which is a strange animal but also a reflection of the contemporary political reality – the popularity of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in recent years manifest this phenomenon. Right-wing politics is finding a lot of takers. Inevitably, now that all of us are under lockdown, books on pandemics are receiving a lot of attention.

Many people we spoke named books on pandemics as their favourite read in current times. Vikas Yadav, a chemical engineer, is following every development in the field of Coronavirus, he is especifically reading studies on Coronavirus vigorously.

Vineet Gill, a senior editor at a publishing house, feels that Covid-19 is affecting reading in a negative way. He believes people are not putting extra effort in reading, rather they are resorting to the use of more accessible things, “I would assume that people are reading even less than they used to. Books can’t compete with the stupefying appeal of TV and Netflix, even in a lockdown. Art gets further marginalized in times of calamity. The preference is only for what’s topical (Camus’s The Plague) or what’s accessible (Netflix)” he says.

Natural readers are however reading more and deciding what to read by their own call. Geethu, a LAMP fellow from Bengaluru, says that the lockdown has not affected her choice in books; she is deciding what to read based on her friend’s suggestions and also relying on the suggestions flaring up on the website Goodreads.

The lockdown has affected choice in books for others. Poonam Chatterjee, who doesn’t read e-books, is now reading motivational books through Kindle. “Generally I am not into e-books, I am reading a lot of motivational books online to stop myself from feeling low, as I think in the current scenario motivation is one of the most important elements in life as we are all living in self-isolation.”

Before the lockdown, Poonam was reading a lot of science fiction and love stories. For Mansi Middha, a social sector professional from Rudrapur in Uttarakhand, this is the time when she is consciously looking for lighter reads.

Interestingly, Vineet is consciously avoiding books that people find in their to- read list during the current pandemic. He says, “For me reading hasn’t changed much. Except that I am trying consciously to avoid finding metaphors for our current ‘crisis’ in literature. And, of course, I am trying to avoid the books that have suddenly found new relevance (though no new readers). Books like Albert Camus’s The Plague, itself conceived as a political metaphor but is now being read too literally”

Some pretentions

There is a myth that those who read a lot are intellectuals. Reading is not just an act of accumulating information and knowledge, it is beyond that. Due to the prestige associated with reading people pretend to read more than they actually do and as such are susceptible to falling prey to algorithmic trends, topical readings (on pandemics at this time).

Crises are crucial moments in human history. They shape a lot of things. How the current Coronavirus outbreak shapes reading in general will be clear six months down the line.