During the COVID-19 crisis, journalists, critics and publishers have presented lockdown as the perfect time to read novels.

Online reading groups have emerged, publishers have run ‘COVID-19’ reading lists, and scholarly groups have established close reading activities.

People suddenly had more free time, the claims went, so everyone could now read novels.


Is it something about the quality of time during lockdown that prompts them to pick up a book?

Dr Ben Davies, Senior lecturer

Whether people are reading more fiction and why is the focus of a new study by literature experts at the UK’s University of Portsmouth and Denmark’s University of Copenhagen.

Dr Ben Davies, at the University of Portsmouth, said that despite claims that more people might be reading novels during lockdown due to a supposed increase in leisure time, it’s not known if people have read more novels, which people, how they read or when, or how their novel reading affected their temporal experience of lockdown.

He said: “There’s evidence new online reading groups have sprung up during lockdown and we are interested to find out are people reading more and, if so, is it because they have more time, or is it something about the quality of time during lockdown that prompts them to pick up a book?”

Previous research has shown most people who don’t read novels say it’s because they don’t have the time.

Dr Davies said: “During lockdown some people have had frantically busy lives, but some have had more free time than usual. We're interested to see for those who have taken up reading novels, how are they reading – in short bursts or for long periods, alone or as part of a virtual collective – and how the slow unfolding of time often associated with novel reading intersects with the feeling of time during lockdown.”

The project has received research funding from the Carlsberg Foundation.

The researchers will examine quantitative data (print and online book sales, publisher communications, the number of COVID-19 reading groups collectives set up) and qualitative analysis of people’s reading habits and experiences during lockdown. They will interview publishers, members of literary organisations and culture departments, and, importantly, general readers and reading group members.

Dr Davies said: “While lockdown is an exceptional phenomenon and therefore valuable for what it can tell us about radically new future scenarios, it will also offer us a deeper understanding of the relationship between reading and time use that is otherwise hard to track.

“Given the importance of time to reading attitudes and habits, the reduced access to workplaces during lockdown will allow us to examine novel reading as an activity correlated in complex ways to work.”

The project will offer initial research findings on the benefits and experiences, as well as the difficulties, of reading during lockdown, and it will offer foundations for wider studies in the future.