In December of last year, BuzzFeed Books sent out a survey asking readers how their reading habits changed throughout 2020. Hundreds responded, and though the majority described a reading slump, many actually read more than usual. Much more. Like, for some, as much as a 500% increase from the number of books they read the year. Here's what they learned.
1. Get rid of preconceived notions about reading goals.
Dozens of readers said they challenged their ideas about what reading is supposed to be. They loosened their self-imposed rules and eased the pressure, and made room for more fun:
"Prior to the pandemic, I always thought of reading as having to be a form of self-improvement, and that I had to be learning something or checking off a box for it to count. I abandoned that idea completely, partly because I wanted to be a little gentler with myself during the pandemic." —Shannon M.
"Guilty pleasure reading isn't a thing. Some reading is to help you grow and should be hard and uncomfortable, but some reading should be absolutely indulgent, and if it makes you happy, screw it." —Cortland Jacoby
“I was a big reader as a kid and then kind of pushed that aside once I got to college and was being assigned hundreds of pages of academic reading a week. Being in lockdown really motivated me to start reading for fun again — so much so that I conquered my 2020 reading goal of completing 40 books AND I'm now working part-time at an independent bookstore!" —Brooke Hubbard
"I didn’t focus on reading consistently — a certain number of books a week or a month, for example — I just read when I felt like reading. This means that I’ve had months where I’ve read 20+ books and some where I’ve read half a book, but it’s helped to not force myself to read particular books or at particular times" —Nora Panini
2. Try a new book format.
Lockdowns gave some readers more alone time, but it also limited access to bookstores and, more significantly, libraries. Over 150 respondents shifted to audiobooks and/or e-books in an effort to keep up with their reading, and most were surprised to find they really enjoyed it:
"I started reading e-books almost exclusively — easier to fit in reading no matter where I am when I can fit a whole library into my bag on one e-reader!" —Deirdre Sheridan
"I love my Kindle Paperwhite. I love it so much I convinced my husband (who is anti-e-reader) to get one. He loves that the pages aren't shiny. I love that I can read in bed without bothering him. Also, it doesn't keep me awake, and actually helps reduce my anxiety before bed." —Jamie Sleutz
"I started swapping music and podcasts for audiobooks, and I began reading before bed for an hour each night." —Abbey B.
"My biggest discovery was putting audiobook on a faster speed on my device." —Cynthia Reynolds
3. Step out of your genre comfort zone.
Angela, a 31-year-old former lawyer in higher education, had to leave her job last year to take care of her baby, who had to spend 50 days in the hospital after a premature birth. (She is now home and healthy.) During that time, Angela was "completely burnt out on real life," so she tried something new: erotica.
"I wasn't in the right place mentally to tackle anything more complex than two or more consenting adults humping in a book," she said. "I needed to read a fuckton of happily ever afters, so that I could start to believe there would be one for us, too."
She especially appreciated the genre's dedication to trigger warning tags: "I only had so much mental toughness, and it's hard for me to read about someone else's struggle without empathizing and internalizing those big feelings. I could choose to avoid anything I didn't think I could handle emotionally."
"I went from reading 'smart' books to filth," she said, "and I'm happier and calmer because of it."
[Read: 16 Romance Novels That Are Explicitly, Scorchingly, Don't-Read-In-Public Sexy]
She wasn't alone. Many readers found themselves unable to enjoy their usual genres, so they reached for new types of books and stories:
"I usually love nonfiction across all topics, especially heavy, sociological ones. I can’t pay attention to them now. Or it feels too real. Since I got my desire to read back — probably in late May? — I’ve almost exclusively read contemporary romance. It’s predictable and an escape and there’s a happy ending. There are dates and brunches and no masks!" —Lauren Martinez
"I gravitated toward shorter books and I read a lot of poetry. I think the smaller demand on my attention and the quicker gratification helped." —Sarah Jean Grimm
"I switched almost entirely to manga and cookbooks/cocktail guides with a sprinkle of 'real' books. It's hard to read memoirs and nonfiction that just feel like 'before-times' and manga is pretty much never based in any kind of reality, and rarely makes your mind do any heavy lifting." —Rachael
[Read: 32 Short Story Collections That Will Cure Even The Worst Reading Slump]
4. Find comfort in old favorites.
Many turned to books they'd already read and loved — especially those that took them back to their youth:
"I read more children's books in 2020, and I revisited a lot of authors I'd read when I was young. I think there was a sense of wanting to know from the first page that everything was going to turn out okay. I actually saved L.M. Montgomery's books [the Anne of Green Gables series] to read in November; I wanted to turn to that simpler, more tranquil time and place as it started to get colder and darker." —Chelsea C.
“I proudly binge-read The Princess Diaries series during lockdown and had so much fun. I loved those books as an angsty 13-year-old; as a slightly-less-angsty 27-year-old, it was refreshing to go back to high school, teenage insecurities, and the minor issue of being a princess. It was a much-needed nostalgia trip and reminded me that, despite our vast age differences, I could still identify with Mia. When the series focused on her depression, I found myself crying. Here, someone had finally put into words exactly what I was feeling, and for the first time, I felt heard." —Maariyah S.
"I read more fanfiction than I have since like... 2009? I think I returned to it with extra gusto in 2020 because I was desperate for a distraction — especially one that didn't require me to leave my bed on difficult days. I also couldn't seem to get into any book I picked up. Not only that, but I was also experiencing the worst anxiety I've had in years — and when every aspect of my life became an 'unknown' and I couldn't control any of it, I was desperate to find stability. Good Girls fics were already familiar territory and returning to those characters every day felt safe and certain." —Kim Conway
5. Seek out books that reflect what you're struggling with, and maybe even help you through it.
For Britt B., 2020 was the year it seemed like everyone around her was joking about becoming a "COVID alcoholic." It was also the year she decided to get sober. "Alcohol was killing me and dimming my light and spirit," she said. "It had to go."
Reading helped: It was both a "non-drug way of self-soothing" and a way to feel less alone in her sobriety. (Britt especially enjoyed Holly Whitaker's Quit Like a Woman.)
"I kept up my sobriety by reading every night — books about sobriety, a lot of memoirs. I found people I thought were funny and relatable, who made sobriety sound cool. I realized what alcohol was doing to my body, my emotions, my brain. I would highlight passages on my Kindle and used an affirmation app to record quotes and mantras for myself. Then I would listen to them while I slept."
Other readers echoed Britt's experience, looking at books as tools to help them better understand themselves:
"I have gotten more into self-help books that make me reflect on my own life, and have been reading nonfiction on productivity, relationships, and burnout. I think that the social isolation and drop in productivity that I have experienced since the pandemic played a role in this shift." —Rachel K.
“Books helped teach me so much about myself, my history as a young Black woman and that there is so much more to learn. They have allowed me to keep learning because, like most people, I don’t know everything, but the process has been fruitful.” —Mallory Rochester
[Read: 42 Books That Helped People Through The Garbage Year That Was 2020]
6. Create a designated reading space.
When bookstores, cafés, and libraries closed — and many work commutes downgraded from a subway ride to a walk from the bed to the couch — a ton of readers lost their favorite reading spots. The solution? Create a designated reading space at home, no matter how tiny.
Nicole Hodnett moved to a new apartment in July and decided to create her own reading nook for the first time. She started reading more books in just a couple of weeks. "I expected to use it for mostly lounging in a new place (because God knows being locked at home means I’ve gotten tired of my couch) but I don’t actually use it for anything other than reading. It sort of makes me feel like I’m going to the library or some other place where all I can do is read!"
But your reading space can be as simple as you want:
"I've been reading like a kid. I made myself a comfy corner full of pillows and beanbags in my un-fancy, cinderblock apartment, and I curl up in that spot and read." —Timothy Dyke
“I spent hours a day sitting in the sunlight reading — it was heavenly if I managed to forget what was going on in the world." —Kerri Sullivan
7. Make your #TBR list impossible to ignore.
If you don't have room for a nook, you can still carve out a space dedicated to reading — something that's small but noticeable, and will keep books on your mind:
"I went through my bookcases and pulled out everything I hadn't read or meant to reread and hadn't got to yet, put all of them on a 'reading shelf,' and committed to get through them all before buying any new books. This was so fantastic. I always had a wide range of books to choose from and didn't feel like I was in a rut. I could choose depending on my mood but also knew I was reading something that I had chosen for myself already.” —Rachael S.
"I went old-school and wrote down a physical list of books I wanted to read, put it up in my bathroom so I looked at it every day, and then I cross things off as I go." —Leanne G.
8. Schedule reading time — and honor it like any other commitment.
There is still no shortage of bad news coming our way, and it can be easy to lose time doomscrolling or trying to mindlessly distract ourselves from it. And while we're stuck at home — for many, in close quarters with family — there's always a chore that needs doing, work that bleeds into "off" hours, or a child who needs attention. Many readers found the only way they could get some reading done was to make that time into a firm part of their routines:
"Now that I'm home almost all the time I like to break my time into 30-minute blocks where I alternate between reading, doing what I need to do that day (as a librarian I can't work from home, so it's not a whole lot), working out, and free time. Then I repeat. I'm pretty proud with how I was able to craft time for myself and create a sustainable routine." —Ayelet Reiter
"I started waking up earlier every day to take some time for myself while the house was still quiet to read and drink my coffee. It was basically my morning 'meditation' every day." —Savannah Riese
"I discovered that my Android had a nifty feature called 'Me Time.' You can whitelist specific apps and the rest are inaccessible. You don't get the notifications either so there's no temptation to check. It allowed me to switch off for a few hours and to take a break from doomscrolling or jumping from app to app out of boredom." —Maariyah S.
9. Add a soundtrack.
Need help focusing? Put on some headphones:
“I recommend a playlist of piano versions of songs at a quiet volume because it’s enjoyable but not distracting.” —Tia Santana
"I live with my entire family so it's hard to get some quiet, but I recently got into hours-long library/cafe/rain sounds on YouTube, so I find an empty corner, pop on my headphones, and read for as long as I can with the comfort of the white noise." —Victoria
10. Keep track of what you're reading.
This one was hit-or-miss: For those who wanted to let go of expectations, that meant letting go of tracking. But for others — especially those who were itching for a sense of control or accomplishment — keeping a list was a game changer:
"I tracked my reading in an Excel sheet, which I haven't done before. Maybe this sounds silly, but finishing a book, plugging it into the spreadsheet, and watching that list grow felt extremely satisfying, maybe more than it would have in prior years, because there was so little about life that I could control with the pandemic." —Shannon M.
"I have the Book of the Month app on my phone to see how many points I've earned for reading different genres, books by new authors, or to maintain my streak. It's gratifying to scroll through all the books I read in 2020 and compare my progress to what I had accomplished the year before.” —Shehtaz Huq
"I downloaded the app HabitMinder which lets me keep track of my reading. (I try to read for at least an hour every day.)" —Megan Atherton
“I've been using the Bookly app for at least two years and it's how I keep track of what I'm reading and how I'm reading. They had an update a few months ago that added daily goals. It was already set up for 30 minutes a day so I kept at it. I used the monthly and yearly goals all the time, and I get an infographic after I finish a book. I think when I felt like I didn't have control, having the stats of my reading helped me focus on that instead of everything else that's been going on." —Khalilah Alston
11. Try reading multiple books at once.
2020 was a year of quickly shifting emotions, and reading multiple books at once meant always having something to read, no matter the mood:
"If your attention span can handle it, read a few books at a time. I always have something on hand that appeals to me." —Alex M.
"I decided to read multiple books at once, typically around three. This always gave me options when I would get bored of a certain book. If I chose to read a book that was long, I would also choose short books to accompany them." —Robert B.
12. Stop reading books you don't like.
One way to ensure reading is something you'll want to do? Stop reading books you don't like.
“I have always been a 'finish what you started' reader, but in 2020 I allowed myself to STOP reading books that I wasn't enjoying. As a numbers person who loves to track things, though, I found that creating an 'abandoned books' shelf on Goodreads helped me come to terms with that choice, and allows me to still sort of track that book's existence in my life. Also, I always track down a full synopsis because I NEED TO KNOW even if I didn't like it.” —Rachael
13. Write reviews and reflections.
Whether or not you're tracking the number of books you read, writing about a book — what you liked or didn't like, lines you fell in love with, how it made you feel — can deepen your relationship with the book (and yourself!) and become a new pastime in its own right:
"I started writing lengthy reviews on Goodreads, as I realized it was a good way to reflect and marinate on the books." —Abbey B.
"I created a book review website as my quarantine hobby. It's been a nice release from my corporate job and held me accountable to sticking to a routine." —Andy Pollen
14. Diversify your book recommendation sources.
Librarians and booksellers are experts — and they want to help! Tons of independent bookstores across the country offer personalized recommendations, whether for a single book or a bespoke mystery box. Check in with your local library, too:
“During the shut-down, my library system created a reader's advisory program that allowed library members to fill out a form on our website detailing what books, genres, or authors they like. Branch librarians would then curate lists for them. That became my favorite thing to happen in 2020. I absolutely love doing reader's advisory, and it has also helped me find more books for myself.” —Elizabeth S.
[Read: 46 Books Our Favorite Indie Booksellers Were Grateful For In 2020]
Then there are podcasts:
"I learned about an amazing podcast to get recommendations from — What Should I Read Next, hosted by author Anne Bogel. Her discussions on books and reading are so enjoyable and my TBR list just keeps growing because she recommends great books." —Ashling
"Bookish podcasts like Book Riot, The Stacks, Bonnets at Dawn, etc., have really expanded my book recs." —Veronica R.
[Read: 52 Podcasts For Every Type Of Book Lover]
"I signed up for more of Book Riot's newsletters. That's where a majority of my recommendations came from, and introduced me to books I may not have considered before." —Sarah
[Psst: BuzzFeed Books has a newsletter, too.]
And social media:
"I discovered 'Bookstagrammers' on Instagram — accounts solely dedicated to books, discussions, and recommendations. I followed those accounts to get new recommendations that would get me out of my comfort zone." —Dana J Ernest
"To keep myself busy I made reading and books a primary focus on my social media. I made a 'bookstagram' and a 'BookTube' as a way to branch out and socialize safely with fellow bookworms and librarians. Interacting with authors, publishing copies and fellow book lovers with tons of great book recommendations keeps me from falling into a pit of despair." —Hailey Hinch
“At the beginning of the pandemic, an acquaintance invited me to a Facebook group dedicated to classic books. I started to read old stuff for the first time in a long time. I read older books, longer books, and I read for greater periods of time. I feel like I read as a form of time travel. The first book in my classic spree was Great Expectations, and I think I enjoyed disappearing into another time and place.” —Timothy Cummins Dyke
[Read: 24 Black Bookstagrammers Who Should Be On Your Radar]
15. Connect with other readers (and authors) by "attending" virtual book events.
For every reader who was bummed about losing IRL events, there was one who appreciated the shift online:
"I attended a ton of virtual book events and loved the way they still managed to feel like the real thing. I even made a friend at one of them — I attended a pitch workshop where writers practiced pitching their book idea, and one of the participants lives near me and is also a librarian. I found her website after and emailed her and now we're Instagram friends and I hope to meet her after the pandemic is over. I figured that if the event had been in person, I would have gone up to talk to her afterwards, so I figured out a way to do that from my couch." —Kerri Sullivan
"In November, I was able to participate in [YA book festival] YallWrite virtually and that was an amazing weekend! Living in a more rural area, it’s been exciting to have more access to these events that normally only happen in a few select cities. While I miss the face to face interaction, it’s been comforting to be a part of the book community." —Nicole Coomer
Want to keep track of virtual book events? Sign up for the BuzzFeed Books newsletter for weekly listings.
16. Join a book club or reading group, or start your own.
Joining a book club — like BuzzFeed's very own — is a great way to get recommendations, link up to a low-pressure reading schedule, and become part of a community:
"Joining the Bad Bitch Book Club helped me discover books outside of my comfort zone. They also have provided a whole bunch of different suggestions so my TBR list is never ending!" —Colleen H.
"I live in San Francisco but I joined a book of the month club at the Brooklyn bookstore Cafe con Libros. I wanted to support a bookstore, especially a BIPOC-owned one, that wasn't Amazon or another big company." —Khalilah Alston
“My friend and I actually started a book club just between the two of us and read books and talked about them once a week. The pandemic definitely was the cause of this, I never would’ve thought of starting our little book club of this wasn’t going on.” —Karen
17. Make reading a special part of your relationships with loved ones.
Even if you and your friend or family member aren't swapping recommendations, or encouraging each other to read more, you can keep your love of reading alive by sharing it with each other:
“I usually look forward to holidays with my husband because we will spend whole afternoons just reading together. We seldom did this at home pre–2020, preferring to read before bed. We now have several nights per week where we read together (or a lazy Sunday afternoon) without the TV on. I love that my favorite part of holidays is now part of our day to day lives." —Rachael S.
"I started reading more children's chapter books since I have been home with my children. My personal reading has gone down, but my children's thirst for books has gone up. We have probably read 24 books together since March — even on days where I haven't felt like reading but they have asked me to read to them. I've been very grateful for this time to read together." —Danielle Brewer
"I was able to share more of my reading experience with my mom as a result of living with her briefly. Sharing books was something we had not done before." —Caitlin F.
18. Pick up used and/or free books.
Money is scarce. We get it. Luckily, there are many ways to get books without dropping a lot of cash — or any cash at all.
"I discovered Book Depository which has a massive collection of used books to purchase, and I used it to add books to my to-read list because they had books I'd never heard of or seen before." —Becky St. Clair
"I discovered how to buy used books from Amazon, mainly from Goodwill. I like random nonfiction books and I can generally buy them for under $2 plus shipping." —Zoe Temco
"I used Libby (an app provided through public libraries) to get more ebooks and audiobooks in 2020. It used to bother me that a lot of what I wanted to read on Libby had long holds on it but now I don't mind putting it on hold and when it comes in it's a really pleasant surprise. I was mostly avoiding audiobooks because they were too expensive, but getting them from Libby for free has been a great addition to quarantine life." —Ayelet Reiter
“I use the Library Extension on Chrome to see if the book I am looking at on Goodreads or KindleUnlimited is available at the libraries I have access to first, before I add it to any of the lists I have or need to request it.” —Erica Quiroz
You can even make use of your friends' libraries:
"I told my friend that I had nothing to read after I finished The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, so he drove Camus's The Plague over and put it on the hood of my car. My sister and I talk a lot about books, too, and she asked me if I wanted her to send me a box of books from her home in San Mateo, California, and I took her up on it. The box arrived packed with a wide assortment of stuff she'd finished and pulled from her shelves. It felt like Christmas." —Timothy Dyke
19. And most importantly: Take care of yourself.
Sans Foster kept it short and simple when sharing what helped improve her reading life in 2020: "meditation and antidepressants."
Which is to say, prioritize your mental health — whatever that looks like for you — so you can give yourself your best shot at making time for reading and enjoying it. ●