A very 2020 summer in reading

Stephanie Merry & Steven Johnson

The Washington Post – This year, perhaps as never before, our reading habits reflect our precarious reality. As the United States (US) has muddled through a deadly pandemic and a racial reckoning under a cloud of exhaustion and dread, we’ve used books to escape the present, inform our beliefs and educate our homebound children.

We’ve found catharsis in apocalyptic science fiction and comfort in romance; advice in self-help guides and a moment of peace, thanks to children’s activity books.

Most strikingly, since the death of George Floyd in May, we’ve flocked to books about race and social justice.

Data collected from publishers, libraries, associations, data firms and readers of our website provide a snapshot of book trends during the spring and summer of 2020. Together, these literary choices mirror our collective mood.

The Washington Post asked readers in early May and mid-August about the books that resonated with them. What follows comes from more than 1,600 submissions.

IN MAY, THE FIVE MOST-READ AUTHORS WERE:

1. Erik Larson

“In addition to being a very good history of Britain at the start of World War II, it’s a very good description of great leadership during very difficult times,” wrote Steve Pascale of Weaverville, NC, about The Splendid and the Vile.

2. Hilary Mantel

Judith Chopra of Burlington, Ontario, wrote of The Mirror & the Light. “It allowed me to go somewhere else – I told my family not to disturb me in the 16th Century – because it was so completely immersive. I had to ration myself so that I didn’t finish it too quickly.”

3. Emily St John Mandel

“Station Eleven was my favourite book of 2014, and returning to it during the pandemic was strangely comforting,” wrote Melissa Stevenson of Menlo Park, California. “The novel thrums with a beating humanist heart, and asked us to consider not only staying alive, but finding things and people to live for.”

4. Amor Towles

“It shows how an entire world can exist within four walls,” Barbara Doran of Silver Spring, wrote about A Gentleman in Moscow. “Now, many of us are trapped in our homes; we can make them our world.”

5. Albert Camus

“What is so surprising is how (The Plague) describes so well what is happening to us now,” wrote Janice Dole of Salt Lake City. “I don’t understand how people in our society don’t have more knowledge today than they did in the past. People still act from emotion and not reason.”

IN AUGUST, THE FIVE MOST-READ AUTHORS WERE:

1. Brit Bennett

“I feel like it’s important in these times to read books about the Black experience in the US,” Diane Starke of El Paso wrote about The Vanishing Half.

2. Ibram X Kendi

About Stamped From the Beginning, Tracy Spangler of South Orange, New Jersey, wrote, “As a White person, it made me angry and ashamed – that this is the reality, and that I wasn’t taught very much of it as a student growing up here.”

3. Hilary Mantel

Heather Feeney of Meridian, Idaho, remarked on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, “Reading these for the first time (and intending to take up The Mirror & the Light very soon) has given me occasion to reflect on my personal values and on my purpose as a government employee in this time of uncertainty, turmoil and even death.”

4. Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns is “a masterpiece that’s changed and deepened my thinking about racism in America,” wrote Linda Kusserow of Minneapolis.

5. Jeanine Cummins

“American Dirt was a blisteringly paced thriller with a heartbreaking message,” wrote Shelly Wiltshire of Richmond, Vancouver. “I know it’s been controversial, but I found the insights to the migrant story meaningful and the ‘nowhere else to turn’ scenario horrifyingly relatable.”

THERE WERE SOME RECURRING THEMES AMONG OUR READERS:

– Many are turning to tough, frightening stories.

“I read this epic pandemic tome” – Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers – “when it came out last summer, and it scared me,” wrote T Andrew Wahl of Stanwood, Washington. “At the time, it was just a well-crafted sci-fi thriller. Now, it feels prophetic as we’re living through just about every plot twist in the book. Chuck Wendig, It’s time to write a happy book about the world recovering and everything being all right!”

“I tend to avoid real-life disaster books,” wrote Deb Evans of Great Falls, Montana. “I read to escape reality, not relive it, but (Midnight in Chernobyl, by Adam Higginbotham) was amazing – I learnt to consider big picture ideas and re-adjusted my thinking. My reading habits also changed this year, from fictional crime and mystery, which are my mainstays, through pandemic and science fiction and now to books like this one. I have never veered or careened through as many genres in a short time!”

– But readers also turn to books that provide sheer comfort.

“I’m really struggling with contemporary fiction right now and am heavily reliant on historical romance to get me through,” wrote Billie Bloebaum of Portland, Oregon. Boyfriend Material, by Alexis Hall, “was the big-hearted, warm hug of a book that I needed, and I already have it queued up for re-read.” Of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, Janet Henderson, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote, “This book I expected to be a child’s story book became a beautiful, comforting book for this high-risk woman toughing it out alone – not only reminding me that we are loved, but our love and support of others is a gift.”

“Although I’m usually an avid reader and have a house full of books, during these surreal times I’m having trouble concentrating on anything longer than a newspaper article,” wrote Elizabeth Flavell of St Paul, Minnesota.

“But Pride and Prejudice is the perfect read. Austen’s characters are old friends I can visit any time. Their witty observations, their deep relationships, and their daily lives filled with normal activities bring great comfort.”

– Most respondents have finished more books this year than usual.

“I am still working from home, for which I am inordinately grateful,” Linda Grace Solis of San Antonio wrote in May. “However, because I no longer have a commute and I’ve learnt not to feel guilty about not being work-productive every minute of every day, I’m reading so much more. I started tracking my reading just before the shutdown, and I’ve read 10 books since life as we know it came grinding to a halt.”

– Some found it difficult to read even one.

When asked what book resonated most for her in May, Cheryl Richardson of West Greenwich, Rhode Island, responded, “None. I have found it difficult to concentrate. There have been too many distractions.” Amber Hoover of Brooklyn found solace in Samantha Irby’s essay collection Wow, No Thank You.

“I am usually a voracious reader, and I have been alarmed that my monkey brain at this moment has killed my reading focus,” she wrote.

“This book made me laugh, which I desperately needed, and delivered sharp and hilarious insights in small bursts perfect for my newly shortened attention span, now that a substantial portion of my brain is taken over by anxiety. (And by Twitter, which is basically anxiety in website form.)”

– Since June, Books about race have exploded in popularity.

The non-fiction bestsellers lists for both hardcover and paperback have been dominated by such titles, including Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

The trend extended to books released years ago, such as Isabel Wilkerson’s 2010 chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands, published in 2017, sold 30,000 copies through 2019, making it a bestseller for its small publisher, Las Vegas-based Central Recovery Press.

But this year, it’s become a national bestseller, with 100,000 copies sold across all formats, nearly all of those since June.

“Publishing maintains a role in finding solutions to problems,” said Central Recovery’s Sales and Marketing Manager Patrick Hughes. “People will always grab a book.”