For some people reading is a source of escapism, a place in which they can leave the troubles of their lives behind, suspending reality if only for a moment. Others read purely for the sake of learning, focusing solely on the betterment of their minds and the improvement of their bank of knowledge. While many readers probably gravitate towards a mix of both, time in quarantine significantly influenced the books which people leaned towards new genres in search of comfort, diversity, and self-improvement. Others found themselves searching for the nostalgic comfort that can only be found in rereading one’s favorite novels. One universal truth that we can acknowledge is that amidst this time of Zoom meetings, toilet paper shortages, and social distancing, most felt an extreme draw towards escaping reality, if only for a few moments (or pages).
So what were our local readers reading? In an interview with Andrea Griffith, the owner of Browsers Bookshop located in downtown Olympia, she explained the titles that the store sold the most copies of as well as why customers said they were buying them. Although Browsers was not open for browsing, they were still doing deliveries and later moved onto curbside pickup as we moved into phase 2. On February 25, 2020, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, curated quite a bit of buzz among readers. Next, she mentioned Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, referencing the television adaptation that premiered on Hulu on March 18, 2020, providing a well-timed escape following our first few days on total lockdown. Then, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the store saw a surge in sales of antiracist titles, reflecting the intentions of our neighbors and peers to educate themselves and stand up for change. Many parents were looking to limit the already increasing screen times of their children, and they turned to popular middle-grade series like those stories of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson to occupy their children’s time, as well as provide a way for them to escape the traumatic reality they were living in. Along these lines, they also sold a lot of puzzles and are now carrying an expansive collection of puzzles because of this. Louise Penny’s books also came through the store quite often, presumably for the comfort and escapism these well-loved mysteries are known to provide. But, of course, there were many other titles people chose to order through the store, with Andrea referring to some of the titles she saw as “really, really random books.”
Tumwater High School sophomore Abbie Benson turned to reading as a pass time a few months into the pandemic “due to… lack of activity.” She read 11 titles during this time, with the most notable titles being Big Water by Andrea Curtis (which she read many times) and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brookes. In having so much time to read, she discovered a love for historical fiction and fantasy. Even before quarantine, she found that using the Libby app to borrow ebooks from the library was the best book format for her. She feels that she “is able to engage more and leave the actual world behind.” It also promotes her night-owl tendencies, allowing her to read at night with only the light from her own phone. Over time, she found herself drifting from her tendency to read from multiple genres to focusing on one fantasy series, becoming utterly engrossed in the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Mass. Interestingly enough, she feels that starting this series actually slowed her reading during quarantine because she cannot read more than one book at a time, nor did she want to stop reading the series halfway through, so all of her reading time went into making her way through this one series. Her final words on her reading habits during quarantine were, “I think due to my lack of activity and having nothing else to do, I threw myself into reading.”
Samantha Bluhm, a junior at Tumwater High School, was able to read 8 books over the course of quarantine. The free time that quarantine provided her with allowed her to get through more books than she typically would. She typically reads fantasy and general fiction books, and this did not really change for her over quarantine. While she feels that most of the books she read were not very popular, she did read and enjoy a few of the books from Disney’s Twisted Tales series. Most of the books she read were books that she already had on her shelves; those that she did not already own she purchased from Amazon. When asked about the format she chose to read from, she replied “I read only physical books,” mentioning that she doesn’t have a reference between hardcover and paperback. She concluded the interview by saying her “reading tastes didn’t really change over quarantine.
Ms. Hall is a beloved English teacher at Tumwater High School. She was able to make it through 17 books during quarantine, with this being much more than she would typically read, with her saying, “Having limited real-world adventure… I found adventures in fiction!!” The books she gravitated towards shifted depending on her mood. When she was feeling great stress about all of the trouble going on in the world around her, she drifted towards fantasy and magical realism, finding comfort in the words of authors like Gaiman, Murakami, Orange, Pratchett, Adeyemi, and Tolkien. But, due to her “realizing how much [she] needed to learn,” she sought out books that focused on anti-racist themes. While she is a self-proclaimed “fiction bird,” who has a harder time getting into nonfiction, she felt it was important to place an emphasis on reading about these very timely topics. The most notable titles she read were the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. When she could, Ms. Hall ordered copies from independent bookstores because she wants “to be able to go over it a million times.” Most of the anti-racist titles she read were in a physical format, and she used the Libby app for a lot of her fiction. Of the books she did read over a digital format, she did order physical copies for her classroom if she felt they would be useful. When asked if the books she read would have any influence in the content or style of her teachings in the upcoming years, she replied, “I am not sure yet; I am hopeful that I will be a better teacher because of my anti-racism reading and my professional readings around online learning. It is challenging for me because I have a very clear sense of my teaching and content — and changing that up feels uncomfortable; even when I know that I need to grow and expand. I am trying to find ways to incorporate what I have learned so far in lesson design, context and ‘lenses’ when we are working with our course materials… even if it feels a bit clunky!”