A Case for Reading in a Time of Chaos

How books can become a safe-haven during a pandemic

Sarah Olson Michel
Mar 12, 2020 · 7 min read

hings are not looking good lately. This week, across the United States, public gatherings have been cancelled, schools are closing, colleges’ spring terms are going virtual, and the economy has nosedived. People are shopping for supplies in case they are quarantined in their homes, causing mass shortages of household essentials. It’s a difficult time for countries around the world, and no one is sure what’s going to happen next.

Many of us are fighting against perfectly valid feelings of anxiety and worry about the future, especially how to protect our most vulnerable loved ones. With many elementary schools closing, children are expressing their fears about the coronavirus, and many parents are doing their best to get work done from home. College students such as myself are worried about being stuck in our apartments and dorms, wondering how long our bank accounts could last if we are unable to work jobs on campus. Senior citizens and those who are immunocompromised are staying in their homes, anxious about their particular susceptibility to COVID-19.

As someone who has long struggled with anxiety disorders and stress, as well as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder tendencies, I have been thinking a lot about coping skills and positive distractions to help with the general feeling of worry sweeping the world right now. There is little many of us can do, aside from washing our hands and practicing social distancing. How can we keep ourselves and our minds occupied in a way that is beneficial while enduring, waiting, quarantining, hoping, fearing? My suggestion — by reading books.

Books have a particular power to calm and reassure us. Back in 2009, a study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68 percent. It’s more effective than a cup of tea, although I like to think the two paired together would go even further. Because reading can lower your heart rate and ease muscle tension, it’s effective for alleviating anxiety. This is also why it’s sometimes easy to fall asleep while reading before bed.

In addition to the benefits for easing stress and anxiety, reading — whether it is fiction or nonfiction — is good for your brain. Researchers from Stanford University found that reading is like exercise for your brain, and neuroscientists have found that reading books helps lengthen our attention span. In a digital world where we are constant scrolling, reclaiming our attention span is an effective technique against information overwhelm. Your brain structure can even be altered by reading: scientists at Carnegie Mellon discovered that white matter increases in the language region of our brain from consistent, daily reading.

Research shows that reading also makes us more empathetic. During a pandemic, one of the most important things we can do as citizens is be empathetic — be kind to one another, and help our communities get through this difficult time as best we can with the resources we have.

Now that we know how reading books can benefit our health by reducing anxiety, increasing empathy, and improving our brains, what should we be reading? How can we incorporate this habit into our daily lives, especially if we haven’t been reading on a regular basis?

I am a reviewer of popular science, a genre of nonfiction written by scientists and science writers for the general public, and I regularly collaborate with publishers and authors. I have volunteered at libraries and spent a year working in an independent bookstore managing a few of their nonfiction sections, including science and nature writing. I also studied English literature for three years in college before changing my major to microbiology. Books have long been my safe haven, and I am eager to share how much of an impact on your life they can make.

Here are a few of my recommendations for what to read and how to incorporate reading into your daily life.

Reading to children

When adults are nervous and there is a scary new word on everyone’s lips, children know something is going on. Reading is a great activity for taking their minds off it and onto something positive and enjoyable. If you have young children who haven’t yet learned how to read or are still early on with learning how, read stories to them or ask them to “help” you read. If your kids are old enough to read on their own, suggest they read out loud to an audience of stuffed animals or to their pet — or to you. This is a great activity for engaging their minds and keeping them focused on something else.

If your kids are a little older and not as interested in storytime, choosing fantasy books with adventure and drama make for good escapes during the day. Have your kids build a reading fort — blankets, pillows, stuffed animals — where they can read comfortably during the day. A short trip to the library or local bookstore can be a good break from being in the house.

For both children and teens, graphic novels can be a wonderfully visual approach to reading. They is especially useful for kids who don’t necessarily enjoy reading, but like comics and cartoons. Speaking of comics, there is nothing wrong with letting your kid work their way through a collection of Calvin and Hobbes. I attribute much of my love for reading to the summers I spent pouring over pages of Calvin’s adventures.

Another activity you might consider for kids — having them write their own book. I used this activity a lot when I was a nanny and reading tutor, especially for the kids who didn’t especially love to read. I would take 5–10 pieces of printer paper, place a piece of colored construction paper over them, and fold them in half. Then I would staple it to form a little flip book with the colored page as the front and back cover. With the help of markers, crayons, or pencils, the kid would write their own story in their book. For younger children, I would have them tell me the story so I could write it down on each page, and let them color and draw in pictures on their own. Then we would have storytime and they could read me their finished book.

Finding time — and new books — to read

How do you find time to read? Read before bed. Read on the couch instead of watching television or scrolling through your phone. Read during lunch. Read when you’re bored. My rule of thumb: if my thumb is on my phone and I’m not making a phone call, I could probably be reading instead.

Maybe your problem isn’t when to read, but what. Let me offer a few recommendations. I love the popular science genre because it’s equal parts entertaining and educational. It’s the reading equivalent of watching a good documentary — as gripping as your favorite TV show, and you learn something along the way. These are the books you get the best “did you know?” facts from, the most interesting stories, the biggest changes in perspective.

If you aren’t familiar with popular science, start with Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes or Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. Jahren also has a new book out on climate change called The Story of More, which should be available at your local bookstore. Other great authors whose books should be available at your local library or bookstore include Mary Roach, Angela Saini, Carl Zimmer, Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Deborah Blum. Specific books I enjoyed enormously — and are perfect for immersing yourself in — are Nick Peynson’s Spying on Whales, Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer, and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.

You could also read the classics of science and nature writing, such as Silent Spring or Under the Sea Wind by Rachel Carson, On the Origin of Species or Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin, and anything by Stephen Jay Gould.

If you’d like to read nonfiction that isn’t science but is inspiring and positive, try Sasha Sagan’s For Small Creatures Such as We, a gorgeous book about rituals and meaning in our everyday lives. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis is a great read for women who like the self-help genre. You could also take this opportunity to catch up on new books about issues that matter, if thinking about different problems is helpful to you.

As for fiction, this is a good time to retrieve your childhood favorite from its place on the bookshelf or in the closet and give it another read through. You could reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R Tolkien, or the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, or the Sherlock Holmes stories. If fantasy or detective work isn’t your thing, you could always return to the classics of literary fiction your read in high school or college, or work your way through a certain era of books or short stories. Pick authors you are unfamiliar with, whose backgrounds are dramatically different than your own, or even a country you’d like to know more about. Travel through your reading.

There is no shortage of contemporary fiction. Your local bookstore should have a selection of new titles for you to peruse for something in line with your tastes. Poetry makes for a pleasant escape, too. Try Mary Oliver if you enjoy nature writing, or Robert Frost.

We are living in tumultuous times. Reading can provide a sense of security, a sanctuary for our mind to retreat within, that is a different and more beneficial experience than merely zoning out to Netflix. Reading can bring us together — ask a friend or relative to read the same book as you so you can video chat or call them to talk about it. Reading can help us manage the effects of anxiety and keep our concerns at bay.

Growing up, I struggled immensely with anxiety and fear. But when I read books, my mind wandered through adventures and fantasies that took me away from my struggles. Sometimes our best escape is simply in the pages of stories — a bit of normalcy, peace, and hope in a time of chaos. I hope my strategy can help you, too.

Read More Science

Lifechanging books for lifelong learners

Sarah Olson Michel

Written by

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Read More Science

Science writer Sarah Olson Michel is bringing back her reviews of pop science, nature writing, and nonfiction in this new Medium publication

Sarah Olson Michel

Written by

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Read More Science

Science writer Sarah Olson Michel is bringing back her reviews of pop science, nature writing, and nonfiction in this new Medium publication

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