In March of 2020, as the novel coronavirus forced Hoosiers to stay inside their homes, residents looked for ways to cope with cabin fever — taking up everything from home fitness routines and jigsaw puzzles, to baking copious amounts of sourdough bread.
Many others turned to books for some healing bibliotherapy during an incredibly difficult year, with 35% of Americans saying they read more during 2020 than they ever have before.
A good book of fiction, at its most basic level, can enmesh the reader in the arc of its story. But more importantly, perhaps, it can shine a light on the challenges of the human condition.
The concept of using books as a form of therapy is one Knox County Public Library Director Emily Bunyan first learned about as a student, and it’s something that stuck with her.
“Bibliotherapy is a term I learned in library school, and it’s resonated with me ever since,” she said, adding that reading can be helpful for many struggling with a range of problems: anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, and even the fear and grief of living through the pandemic.
The concept, as old as Ancient Greece, has — like other art forms — helped countless individuals find their way through hard times.
“Aristotle considered reading ‘medicine for the soul,’ ” said Bunyan. “People can read to soothe their souls during this tumultuous time.”
Bibliotherapy was clearly a coping strategy used globally in 2020, as book and literature e-commerce websites were visited more than 15 billion times in March alone — an 8.5% increase in traffic from the previous month.
As for what books people around the world — and locally — have been reading this past year, apocalyptic fiction, like Stephen King’s 1978 novel “The Stand,” have been popular, and offers its readers the cathartic experience of safely working through the a pandemic world.
Popular too, says Bunyan, have been the works of nonfiction about courageous leaders, like Winston Churchill, as well as those that promote the learning of new skills or health and wellness.
“Patrons are interested in cultivating good health to be less vulnerable to COVID-19,” she said, noting that one of the most sought after books at KCPL in 2020 was “The Plant Paradox Cookbook” by Steven Gundam.
Too, Bunyan said, a handful of local experts created a series of DIY videos for the library’s Facebook page that have been incredibly popular. Instruction on anything from home canning and baking to tire changing have been widely viewed.
Others have used the library’s books as a form of escape from the pandemic, seeking out books like John Connolly’s “Book of Bones,” a 700 page mystery thriller and the most checked out book in 2020 at the local library.
“Like novels in the Harry Potter series, length isn’t a deterrent when readers are those enthralled with a riveting series of books,” Bunyan said.
The youth and teen departments at the library have also seen a surge in readership over the past ten months. While it’s usually the required work of e-learning that brings them through the doors, youngsters often leave the building with a new adventure held on the pages of a borrowed book.
Youth and teen librarian Roger Stremming says that in younger readers, he’s seen many of them, particularly teens, use books as a form of escape.
“I’ve had several readers who wanted to finally start some of our longer fantasy series because they have lots of free time and those series could help fill that space,” he said, adding that one of the most popular now is the “Last Apprentice” series by Joseph Delaney.
In addition to the positive effects and escapism books provide in general, Stremming says the library has a number of resources to help youth understand and deal with stress and trauma.
“We have a great deal of materials in both departments dealing with understanding and expressing emotions. This is super critical for these age groups as we to through an unprecedented time of stress and hardship,” he said.
Though COVID-19’s days of running unchecked are numbered, health officials say the months ahead will still require residents to stay vigilant and socially distanced.
Facing the cold winter months of stress and isolation, many psychologists advocate reading as one positive way to spend part of each day.
Not only does reading improve memory and concentration, and decrease the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s, many studies have shown it is incredibly effective at relieving stress. The University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68%, working faster than most other relaxation methods.
And with thousands of print materials, the local public library truly has something to meet any interest and need.
For individuals looking for reading that is particularly meaningful at this moment in human history, Bunyan has some personal recommendations.
“I recommend Fareed Zakaria’s ‘10 Lessons for a Post Pandemic World,’ ” she said, adding that another book that was particularly meaningful for her personally is the 1992 book “Care of the Soul” by psychotherapist Thomas Moore.
And, of course, “the epic romance novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marques,” she adds of the story set against the backdrop of a raging cholera epidemic as two lovers are kept apart for more than 50 years.
Yet through those difficulties, readers see that neither a cholera epidemic nor time and distance can extinguish love.