By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
For a list of recommended titles, click here.
In the words of author George Saunders, “Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we’re someone else.”
Regular reading also provides an escape from where we are.
The Stanford Graduate School of Business recently published an article by Martin J. Smith, in which Stanford business scholar Scotty McLennan discusses the value of literature in times of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Good literature helps us understand good human relations,” McLennan states. “It’s valuable through its nuances, its twists and turns, its dilemmas, its paradoxes. It helps us see more than is otherwise seen and focus on what ultimately matters.”
Reading books, according to research gathered by Healthline.com, strengthens the brain, increases empathy, builds vocabulary, prevents cognitive decline, reduces stress, aids sleep, alleviates depression and lengthens lifespan.
Reading as Therapy
“Reading is definitely therapeutic,” said Hoover librarian Justin Rogers. “Not only does it expand your vocabulary and knowledge, but it allows for some healthy escapism.”
A good book will take its reader on a journey, Rogers added. For instance now, reading can shift focus from the pandemic and socio-political stressors to the books’ main characters and their journeys, their struggles.
Hoover Public Library Director Amanda Borden noted that she typically travels quite a bit, but she wasn’t able to for much of 2020.
“Books allowed me to venture to other locations while remaining safe in my home,” she said. “I read 109 books in 2020.” That’s 25% to 30% more than she normally reads.
According to local librarians in the Over the Mountain area, it’s all about finding something that interests you. What interests a reader can be a moving target, changing with the environment around them.
Hoover librarian Krysten Griffin said she spoke with a lot of people online who had trouble reading over the past year.
“I did too until I found a genre that really clicked for me,” she said. “For whatever reason, fantasy is exactly what I needed right now. It’s a genre I have always enjoyed but never really read much of, but about 50% of what I’ve read over the last four months has been fantasy.”
Both during and in the wake of pandemic shutdowns in the spring, library staff had a firsthand view of just how much people needed to read in times of crisis.
Facilities scrambled to organize new curbside services to supply non-digital readers with physical books.
“When we opened for curbside service, we had 250 cars that first day,” Borden said.
Upon reopening the Hoover Public Library in July, Borden and her team witnessed people shedding tears of happiness.
The Homewood Public Library team built on the curbside service, offering Bonus Bags filled with books and activities curated by staff based on the patrons’ likes and dislikes.
Recommendations and Interests
According to each of the libraries, recommendation requests have been on the rise.
Lifestyle books that focus on baking, knitting, organization and such are increasingly popular since people are sheltering at home and have more time to focus on hobbies and activities.
Staff at the O’Neal Public Library in Mountain Brook noted that they now have a request form on their website, “My Reads,” that helps parents connect with a librarian for personalized recommendations for their kids. In addition, their “Shelf Care” page is packed with suggested titles for adults and teens.
Hoover library assistant Samm Hamilton surmises that people are looking for more recommendations because they simply have more time on their hands for reading.
“I helped a sweet gentleman (recently) who specifically wanted to try Faulkner, ‘because it’s about time and if not now, when?’” said Samm Hamilton, library assistant at Hoover. “I’ve also helped people put a finger on what exactly it is they like.”
What people are looking for during the pandemic varies based on their interests.
Hoover library specialist Pam Bainter found in her interactions at the library and via book groups that what people have been reading during the pandemic has fallen into two distinct categories.
“Those who read for information/understanding seem to gravitate toward history,” Bainter said. They are reading to try and understand what is happening, whether that be past pandemics or other times of crisis.
Readers who are looking to escape gravitate toward genres such as travel books, true crime, biography and fiction.
At the Vestavia Hills Public Library, light-hearted books have been the big contender.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have had some patrons say that they specifically are choosing more light-hearted, feel-good books such as romance, chick lit and beach reads,” said Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest Deputy Director Daniel Tackett. “These feel-good books allow them to escape, if only for a little while, from the reality of the pandemic and its effects.”
According to data collected by Hoover’s library staff, fiction was a leader in 2020, especially on digital services.
“We had 70,000 more checkouts of fiction titles in 2020 than in 2019, while nonfiction only increased by around 13,000,” Rogers said.
O’Neal children’s librarians noted that there has been an uptick in requests for more nonfiction to support at-home learning.
Homewood cited a rise in people searching for more diverse books in response to rising social movements.
“A lot of our patrons are also asking for social justice books,” said Judith Wright, Homewood Public Library assistant director and teen librarian. “People have always turned to books during times of uncertainty and we saw that more than ever in 2020.”
Leslie West, head of adult services for Homewood’s library has noticed a large number of requests for historical fiction, cozy mysteries, beach reads and suspense thrillers. Nonfiction readers have opted for crime, cookbooks and self-help most frequently.
Kids followed the social justice trend, said Laura Tucker, head of children’s services for Homewood’s library, as well as requesting graphic novels and books about animals, humor and space.