Author Leah Price gives a talk on the growing popularity of books during the pandemic – The Lafayette
From book-loving communities on Instagram to aesthetically pleasing Zoom displays, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought books back into fashion.
On Monday, author and book historian Leah Price asked Lafayette students to consider their connection to reading during the pandemic at an event held at the Skillman Library. Price spoke at the Paul and June Schlueter Lecture on Book Art and History, which offers the opportunity to study books as objects and artifacts.
Price, who is known for her books ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Books’ and ‘How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain’, is keenly interested in the many ways readers interacted with books over time. She started her talk by talking about the overall changes in book sales that retailers have seen in the first year of the pandemic and the difficulties that have resulted.
She explained that as the books had boomed in popularity and sales, retailers needed to figure out where to put the books. They couldn’t be in front of a Walmart or grocery store, but they made too much money to be thrown in the back of the store. Not only were sales of physical books increasing, but eBooks and audiobooks had also exploded in popularity. Although this could have been attributed to portability issues before the pandemic, Price found that there was an increase in long-term listening.
Despite this, many readers are hesitant to consider their consumption of audiobooks as actual reading. Teacher and responsible for English Christopher Phillips, who co-sponsored the event, had his own thoughts on the conflicting feelings many have when it comes to audiobooks.
“Audiobooks are more automatic and I think that could be a big reason why people are hesitant to call audiobooks ‘reading,'” he said. “It’s like when the companies that invented cake mixes in the mid-20th century realized that housewives wouldn’t be comfortable using them unless they cracked an egg into the mix. Powdered eggs could easily be added to everything else powdered, but women wouldn’t buy the mixes if they didn’t feel as if they were cooking.
“Turning a page in a book might be like breaking an egg into a cake; it helps us feel like we’re reading,” Phillips continued.
Despite this, Price explained that physical copies of books would become important in multiple ways. More time spent at home meant people had a lot more free time, which made cookbooks and children’s books much more popular. Whether people pass the time by reading to their children or making sourdough starters, “How To” and activity books have no shortage of customers.
Price then referred to the book boom as decoration. Sonali Shah ’26, who attended the event, had no shortage of posts on Instagram and Pinterest.
“Tthere’s been a whole new wave of seeing reading as something aestheticized and it’s just gotten really pretty. Apps like Pinterest and Instagram allow people to post photos of books in a way that makes them really attractive and pretty,” Shah said.
While many were stuck at home trying to figure out how to reintegrate books into their lives, libraries had to figure out what their role would be in the pandemic. Although initially a place to borrow books, libraries have always been centers of community development.
“What is it about libraries that created the hope that they would step up during a general societal collapse?” Asking price.
Those who want to know more about Price can check out his latest post “What We Talk About When We Talk About Books,” which dives deeper into the history of reading.