When I was in kindergarten, I had mandatory Quiet Time in my room every day after school for an hour. I could play with my toys or look at books or color, but I was not to disturb my mom unless I needed something important.
Needless to say, I was not a big fan of Quiet Time when the policy was first put into place, and I protested. Loudly. And daily. But my mother is an incredibly smart woman, and she quickly figured out how to get me to cooperate.
One fall afternoon, having finished my after-school snack, I trudged up to my room, complaining all the way upstairs. When I got into my room, I found a shiny new book waiting for me at the end of my bed. It was a kids’ biography of Abigail Adams, whose name had instantly earned her my admiration when we learned about the Revolutionary War. (Remember the ladies!)
Suddenly, Quiet Time didn’t seem all that bad. Usually, I spent most of the hour bemoaning the drudgery my own mother was subjecting me to and checking the clock every few minutes. But that day, I barely noticed as the once-dreaded hour ticked by. I was absorbed in my new book.
My mom must have noticed my relative lack of complaints when I came back downstairs an hour later. Because after that, for as long as I had after-school Quiet Time, every so often, she would leave a book or two — sometimes new, sometimes from the library — waiting for me on my bed.
As I got older (and relatively easier to manage), Quiet Time was no longer required. But by then, I had become a full-blown bookworm. My favorite day of the week was the day my mom drove me to our local library after school. I had the route from my school to the library memorized before I could even ride a bike.
I would tumble out of the car the second my mom parked and skipped across the shaded parking lot. I’d bounced down the stairs to the children’s section, where I’d promptly buried myself in the stacks. I’d stay there browsing happily until it was time to go, at which point my mom invariably had to help me carry my massive pile of books upstairs to the checkout desk.
When we got home, my mom helped me carry my books upstairs and organize them in a precarious tower on my nightstand. I picked up the book I was most excited about and, if I was left unbothered, would spend the rest of the afternoon reading until it was time for dinner.
Somewhere between 15 and 21, my love for reading lost that intensity, that excitement. Math homework started getting harder. TV started getting more interesting. My friends and I were suddenly allowed to go places on our own — and sure, they were just the mall and the local Starbucks, but our newfound freedom was thrilling.
On top of that, the intense pressure I felt to fit in meant I was terrified of being judged for my reading choices. I’d rarely pick up books I hadn’t already heard my peers talking about, and if I did, I wouldn’t mention it. It was just another reason to read less.
I still read books, of course. I even still read not-required-for-English-class books, and I kept an eye on the news. When I had the time, I’d pick up a murder mystery or whatever novel all friends were talking about at the time. But always something light and easy; always something that wouldn’t require too much brainpower; always something I could easily put down if I had to.
Because of that, it wasn’t the same.
I no longer read for the sheer excitement of it. I no longer devoured books because I just had to know what happened next. The amount of schoolwork and extracurriculars I had left me with few afternoons to spend reading, and very little mental energy to tear through a book at breakneck speed. So even though I read books I liked — books I loved, even — the old excitement was reduced to a few glimmers.
Most of those patterns I started forming in middle and high school became cemented in college. Once I found my friends at school, I was less scared about being judged, but it was midterms by then, and the only thing I had time for was school. As much as I loved reading for fun, I just didn’t have the time — or the brainpower — for it.
Then COVID-19 happened, and suddenly, I had all kinds of time.
It started in early May, just after I had finished classes. My mom and some of her friends had planned a mother-daughter Netflix Party to watch “Clueless,” the gloriously 90’s teen-movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which I had recently started reading as a way to wind down during finals.
A love for Austen is one of many things I inherited from my mother, who excitedly watched the entire BBC “Pride and Prejudice” series with me when I decided to read it freshman year of high school. So this was an exciting moment: We could watch an adaptation of “Emma” (a movie we both already loved) while I was reading it.
Suddenly, I was right back to my middle school reading habits. I spent afternoons reading on our porch. I fell asleep with images of Regency flirtations dancing in my head. I finished the remaining three-quarters of the book in four days.
The old flame was reignited. I tore through books last summer, just for the fun of it. I read whatever I felt like reading: murder mysteries and spy thrillers, gritty true crime and cheesy rom-coms, high literature and history and Harry Potter for the 100th time. And suddenly, reading was fun in a way it hadn’t been in years.
A quick scroll through Twitter confirmed that I wasn’t the only one feeling like this. My feed was full of nostalgia for the elementary school Scholastic Book Fair, book recommendations and people like myself who had gone back to their middle school reading habits in quarantine.
For me, quarantine also took the pressure off reading because I stopped feeling like I had to be reading something impressive or cool or interesting whenever anyone asked. I stopped caring what other people thought about my book du jour.
Not caring what people thought about my current read made an incredible difference. I sourced book recommendations from family and friends and social media. Eventually, I made a Goodreads account to track what I was reading and find more suggestions. It quickly became my favorite Internet rabbit hole — say what you will about robots monitoring our lives, but the algorithm on that website is very, very accurate, and I am thankful for that.
It’s part of a larger trend we saw during quarantine: allowing ourselves to indulge in self-care to escape the literal hellscape outside. Along with countless skincare TikToks and plenty of online shopping, reading fun books became a way for me to treat myself to something uplifting or escapist.
Of course, as the summer progressed, reading became so much more than just an escape. As the Black Lives Matter movement rightly took its place in the forefront of our consciousness, we got a necessary reminder about the importance of reading diverse authors and educating ourselves, and leaders in the movement recommended books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.” Mike Gustafson, who co-owns Literati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor with his wife, and Richard Retyi, the director of communications and outreach for the Ann Arbor District Library, both told me in interviews last week that antiracist literature has been in more demand ever since.
It’s an adjustment, to be sure — these are not light, easy reads. But honestly, at this point, what’s one more adjustment? We’ve switched to online classes, contactless takeout meals and countless Zoom holidays. Switching up what we’re reading is a small, but important addition to the massive change the last year has brought.
Lockdown has also been incredibly difficult for local libraries. The Ann Arbor District Library hasn’t opened its doors in almost a year. But AADL is committed to serving the community, so they’ve adapted. Story hours, book clubs and film discussions were all moved online. Librarians are available for shelf service to find what their patrons are looking for. Checkout is now done contactless in the library’s lobby or online, as AADL works to make audiobooks and e-books, which are in more demand than ever, as widely accessible as possible.
And it’s working.
I spoke with Retyi last week, and his pride in the work AADL is doing to help the community through the pandemic was audible over the phone.
“We are circulating about 60% of the amount of material that we were when we were fully open,” Retyi said. “It’s remarkable — to have two-thirds of our stuff still going out even though nobody can browse. It’s huge. The volume has been awesome.”
Indie bookstores are also struggling. It was true before the pandemic, thanks to Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ correct assumption that giving me a coupon for a book on my to-read list will, in fact, make me buy the book online rather than going to the store. But the pandemic has made it even harder. It’s no longer safe to just pop in and browse your local bookstore, so that two-day Prime shipping looks better and better.
So indie bookstores have adapted, too. My beloved Capitol Hill Books at home in D.C. is doing appointments where you can have the entire store to yourself (a literal dream) to browse safely for an hour and custom-book grab bags. Literati has expanded its online shopping options and is doing curbside pickup and virtual events. They’ve even put their signature Public Typewriter online.
It hasn’t been easy. But like the library, indie bookstores are finding their niche in this pandemic. Gustafson told me more about what indie bookstores are doing to stay afloat during the pandemic over email, and though it’s been challenging, Gustafson’s love for and pride in his work is clear.
Still though, attending online events and picking up books curbside is a far cry from afternoons spent studying, browsing and drinking coffee in Literati or getting lost in the stacks at the Dawn Treader. It’s only a “semblance” of that pre-pandemic haven, Gustafson says. And it’ll stay that way until enough people have been vaccinated for it to be safe again.
“Our vision is to be a lively bookstore … it’s hard to be lively on the internet,” Gustafson said. “We also value the importance of whimsy and surprise … it’s hard to be surprised on the internet. When you hop online shopping or looking for something, you likely already have an idea of what you want, and you’re just wanting to find that thing and be done with it. When you walk into a bookstore, you’re opening yourself up to a world of surprise. You might find something on a bookshelf that looks interesting and end up taking that home.”
I don’t have a neat ending for this story. Libraries and bookstores remain closed for browsing as they continue to struggle. The academic calendar is unrelenting in its exigencies. This godforsaken pandemic continues, and it is miserable.
In all of this, however, I’m thankful that I’ve rediscovered the sweet refuge between the pages of a good book. I’m thankful that libraries and bookstores continue their efforts not just to help me read like I did as a kid, but to make our communities — and our lives — a little better.
In the midst of this pandemic, I’ve fallen in love with reading again. And I am endlessly thankful for that.
During this pandemic, I’m loving going back to something I loved as a kid, and it’s made all the difference. There is so much value, so much joy, in rediscovering the things we loved when we were younger.
I think we all need a little childlike joy at the moment, whether it comes from reading or something else — something to make the days a little brighter.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.