March 27, 2020

Surge in sales of “difficult” books during worldwide lockdowns


Lear: great play, terrible social distancing (John Gilbert / Public domain)

A few months ago… no, weeks? Last week?! Are you kidding me, last week, a meme went around reminding everyone that Shakespeare (probably, maybe) wrote King Lear while in the 16th-century equivalent of lockdown, from the bubonic plague. Let’s get creative in lockdown! It implied. There’s never been a better time to do [thing you have always claimed there was simply no time to do]!

Accordingly, people in locked down countries have been taking advantage of this unexpected spare time* by (virtually) working out, (virtually) crafting, and, most dauntingly of all, having actual (virtual) house parties.** It seems a lot of folks have also been reading: a Guardian report described a surge in physical sales of big novels, chief among them Hilary Mantel’s 900-page The Mirror and The Light

Those about to go into lockdown were also seemingly stocking up on ‘bucket list’ novels. The report found that Waterstones:

…reported a “significant uplift” on classic—and often timely—titles including Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude*** and Love in the Time of Cholera, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Nielsen also reported sales of lengthy or otherwise “difficult” books: “nationwide increases in sales for War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, and the first instalment of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been finding it rather hard to concentrate recently. The thought of ploughing through À la recherche du temps perdu fills me with dread during the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. And as we begin to come to terms with this thing and find some semblance of balance, there’s bound to be a certain pressure—a temptation, even—to write your own King Lear, or blast through Finnegans Wake.

But it’s also important to remember not everyone is functioning at optimum speed right now. These are exceptional times—and everyone will deal with them differently. So: read what you feel able to! Even if you can only manage the back of a cereal packet! Books will be there on the other side of this thing. And hopefully, by then, even more people will have realised their eternal value.



*obviously not everyone has had such luck—key workers, parents, carers: you are the best of us, and we salute you.

**I have not been invited to one yet. Hint hint.

***let’s hope it’s not that long.


Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.