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The changing landscape of lockdown reading

By Barbara Henderson

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"Had neither the time nor the head space to read much for pleasure in the last few weeks – but I’m going to try to spend a wee bit of time with [Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light] tonight (though diving into the world of Henry VIII may not be the optimal way to relax)."

So tweeted Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a few days ago, referring to the most recent follow up to the twin Booker Prize winners Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Unlike many politicians, she is well known for her love of reading. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you surely can’t help being struck by her ambitious choice: 879 pages of Tudor political intrigue demands a lot of any reader.

But there are good reasons why Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to the Thomas Cromwell story was much anticipated – the extraordinary success of its predecessors for one. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it myself.

Our First Minister is undoubtedly busy, but the harsh reality is that many of us are not. This, of course, does not mean that we are idle – many of us are far from it. And, it transpires, we are turning to the written word in record numbers.

Despite cancelled book launches and festivals, book sales have not been hit as hard as expected. In fact, UK fiction sales have climbed by a third. In the US, non-fiction titles for children have seen a 66 per cent lift.

People are looking for distraction, entertainment, inspiration and education – and they are finding all of those things in books! Ebook and audio continue to be popular formats, but in these days, dominated by screen time, there is real joy in simply turning a page, isn't there?

As a writer I am heartened, of course. But as a ‘gig economy’ dependent performer, there are huge downsides for people like me. From the most profitable February and March I had ever had, with more school author events than I should have probably taken on, my schedule snapped to nothing. The diary, such as it is for 2020, is now empty. And as many writers will attest, events sell books in large numbers.

Aside from any financial benefit, they allow us to meet readers in person – and I personally feel incredibly energised by that. Now, I am lucky because I also have a part-time teaching job which I am carrying out remotely. For many full-time writers, this is a time of genuine stress and financial strain.

Just as well that the Scottish Book Trust has just announced its first Remote Event Fund. The trust states: "We're looking to support activity that ensures people in Scotland can continue to enjoy the benefits of reading and writing at a time when in-person events cannot take place. This could be any project involving a writer from the Live Literature Author Directory which follows social distancing guidelines. Projects could include a remotely delivered workshop or reading; a podcast or local radio recording; a learning resource or anything else that you feel will benefit your audience or community during this time."

The application is an incredibly easy tick-box affair, with only a paragraph or so about the event you’d envisage, so nothing ventured, nothing lost, right? Applications close on May 22.

There are other glimmers of hope. While online giant Amazon does not as a rule deliver books at the moment (in favour of more essential items), locals have stepped up their game. Of course you can order books through Waterstones online, but north of Scotland publishers such as Sandstone Press and Cranachan Publishing have also recently made their books available to purchase directly, often at very attractive rates.

What am I reading in lockdown?

For now, I have decided to prioritise new titles and recent releases by less well-known writers than Hilary Mantel. There are many of them, and I am reviewing every single one on several platforms to give struggling writers a hand.

What’s going to be your next lockdown read?

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