The pressure to read more is always on. Estimates suggest that the most avid bookworm will finish fewer than 5,000 works before they die, and only if they live past 80. To put that into perspective, it would take the most voracious reader 140 lifetimes to finish what some believe to have been the 700,000 works contained in Egypt's ancient Library of Alexandria.
Surveys show that in recent years fewer and fewer people were up to the task. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2017 only 53 per cent of people in the US, the world's largest book market, said they had read at least one book for pleasure during the previous year, down by almost 10 per cent since 1992. In 2018, Americans were spending on average under 16 minutes per day of their leisure time reading, a decrease of six minutes since 2013. Publishers had good reason to worry.
Then came the pandemic, which continues to devastate industries globally – but not so for the world of reading. In 2020, print works were sold at the highest levels in a decade, according to BookScan, an organisation that analyses trends in the publishing sector. Ebooks and audiobooks also saw an increase in purchases. Fiction sales in the UK rose by 16 per cent. Earlier this year, Bloomsbury, the publishing house responsible for the Harry Potter novels, spoke of seeing a "ray of sunshine" after it was forced to increase its profit estimates for the second time in 2021.
The downside of all this reading, of course, is that it is a symptom of the solitude imposed by global lockdowns. While books themselves were flying off warehouse shelves and into virtual shopping carts, events that brought people together to celebrate them were cancelled. As coronavirus restrictions ease, however, the social element of bookishness may be on the rebound, reinvigorated by the pandemic boost to the market. Abu Dhabi Book Fair, for example, is happening next week – a hybrid of digital and in-person events with strict safety measures. It is one of the first to be held in person for publishers across the world since the pandemic began.
Alongside talks from some of the world's best known authors, there will be conversations around how the industry should adapt to its newfound success, perhaps even the relevance of physical book fairs in the post-pandemic world; after all, the sector saw this boom at a time when shops were closed, book fairs cancelled and the industry moved online.
But despite good sales, it is too early to say the pandemic was only positive for the industry. The UN estimates that Covid-19 has led to a shocking 100 million more children lacking basic reading skills. No publisher should celebrate if the education of its future market is in jeopardy. The industry should play its part in helping young readers make up for lost ground.
Book fairs and other in-person experiences can be part of the solution. Abu Dhabi's event has space dedicated to educational activities, with children able to learn from a global mix of authors and illustrators. Being immersed in such a physical environment is one way we can get child literacy back on track.
And book fairs will still have much to offer established readers. The many different events and conversations at literary gatherings show us what is going on in the industry and among fellow enthusiasts, knowledge that helps us make informed decisions about the books we take home. Pandemic or no pandemic, we need to be selective if we can only read a few thousand works in our lifetime.