July 13. In my entry of June 22 I speculated on the fate of reading books in the lockdown. Now the bookshops have opened and the books sales monitor Nielsen has started to generate data on sales and reading habits.
I turn out to be at once atypical and absolutely on trend.
I wrote then that for all the extra time forced upon those in lockdown, I was not reading much more for pleasure. I was still spending too much of my working day wrestling with print, and it was rather my garden that was gaining from my additional leisure.
Not so with the wider public. The increase in hours spent with a book has been dramatic. Before the lockdown, UK adults averaged 3.4 hours a week reading. By the beginning of May that had increased to 6.1. hours. This must be the largest single growth in functional literacy ever recorded in so short a period. It has since declined marginally, but in spite of the gradual relaxation in competing recreations, it is still running at 5.9 hours.
The extra reading has been reflected in the business of the bookshops which reopened on 15 June. Although the high street has in general reported significantly lower demand than the same time last year, Waterstones and its competitors have seen sales rise by a healthy 19% over the same period.
There have been gains in various genres, including contributions to the Black Lives Matter debate. But the largest growth has been in crime novels, up 120,000 for the last two weeks of June over the same period last year.
So with my own reading. I have been buying the works of the American writers James Lee Burke (New Orleans) and Michael Connolly (Hollywood) and re-encountering Simenon, some in collections I have had for years, some the excellent re-translated novels Penguin have just finished publishing.
It would be tempting but facile to suppose that this increased interest in murder reflects the tensions caused in families forced to endure each other’s company over several months, without escape to the office or the schoolroom or other company. In fact, as a range of national and international agencies have reported, such tensions, where they exist, have been reflected not in literary habits but actual domestic violence, particularly involving men unable to escape their demons and women unable to escape the threat they pose.
The pleasure in crime fiction answers a different need. The genre is wide, and the detail of homicide varies. For the most part the focus is not on the act of murder, but on the solution to the mystery. This is particularly the case with Simenon’s policeman. In most of the novels the drama is not whodunnit but why. Take, for instance, Maigret and the Tall Woman, which I have just finished reading in a new translation. Maigret is contacted by the wife of a hapless safe-breaker – the tall woman of the title whom Maigret had first encountered when she was earning a living on the streets of Paris. Her husband has disappeared after finding a body in a house he was burgling. It takes little time to locate the house, identify the victim, and determine that her husband, a prosperous dentist, either himself in or conjunction with his controlling mother, had murdered her. Much of the rest of the book is taken up with an epic interrogation of the dentist as Maigret establishes not so much the fact of guilt as an explanation of the psychological tensions within the dentist’s household which had resulted in the fatal shooting.
So with our current crisis. What we need above all is to narrativize a drama which has broken all the rules of expected behaviour. Already the stories are being written about the fateful early weeks of the pandemic, incomplete and contested though the evidence is. In the meantime we find some solace in a literary form where the crime is stated and, in the last chapter, an explanation is found.
Whether the culprits will go to jail is another question. Maigret, famously, lost interest when the charge was brought. He had done his job once he understood how the event had happened and how people had behaved in the way they did.