Crises can sometimes bring about positive changes and lead to improvements in important aspects of our lives, even amidst pain and suffering. The closures, lockdowns and restrictions brought about by the pandemic are economically and psychologically exhausting but have led us to discover the profound value of silence, reflective solitude and time, free from the frenzy of hectic meetings and excessive work. Among other things, it has driven us to read more.
It has led to a revaluation of books, of words that tell stories, that describe thoughts and worlds, that express emotions and anticipate the future. In the first two months of this year, sales of paper books increased by 25% (through sales channels, i.e. bookshops, large-scale distribution and online stores), while publishing sales grew by 2.3% in the whole of 2020 (not much, but an increase). The number of e-book readers has also increased, from 23% to 32% of people aged between 15 and 74 (2020 data, including those who just read e-books and those who, like most people, switch between them and paper books). Audiobook usage increased by 12%.
In short, the number of readers has increased during the pandemic, from 26.3 million in 2019 to 27.6 million in 2020, yet we still lag far behind the rest of Europe: 61% of Italians said they read a book (paper, e-book or audiobook) during the year, compared to 92% in France and 86% in Britain. We are still a country with a low inclination for reading (while many, perhaps too many, try their hand at writing). Still, in times of crisis, it’s worthwhile highlighting the positive changes and trying to figure out what can be done to make further improvements, rather than complaining about what’s wrong.
“Publishing has grown, demonstrating great stability”, comments Paola Dubini, professor of cultural management at Bocconi University. “Bookshops and libraries have worked miracles” (La Repubblica, 6 April). Economic sectors that were considered marginal until recently, measured against the success of online giants like Amazon, have shown an extraordinary ability to react. After the first wave of the pandemic and the widespread closures, government measures considered newsstands and bookshops to be essential businesses. Books have helped to brighten our days during the lockdown. Small bookshops that know their customers have responded well to their needs, advising them, suggesting things and starting to make home deliveries, offering a more targeted or “tailor-made” service for readers. Local public libraries have been increasingly important, especially for lonely people, the elderly, young people and students looking for a way to fill their days with something other than a TV series. The return of books.
Other new initiatives such as condominium libraries have sprung up, the first of these was in Milan in 2013, on via Rembrandt 12. It quickly became an example for other projects and was followed by one on via Russoli 18, shared between four social housing towers and the Aler “Falcone e Borsellino” condominium library. A dozen other successful activities were celebrated as cultural and civic “best practices” during the Milan BookCity in 2020 and are connected to the City’s efficient library system for services and consulting. Finally, there is one in Palermo, in the building opposite the “Falcone tree”, the city’s anti-mafia symbol.
Corporate libraries are also on the rise (like Pirelli’s: “La cultura come il pane” (Culture like bread) is written on a large panel at the entrance to the bookshop in the Bicocca HQ), and they have remained partially open during times of remote working and have been brought to life with digital meetings and webinars with writers.
Another important initiative came from the business world: a company book club at Vanoncini in Mapello, Bergamo province (a company specialising in sustainable buildings, with a turnover of almost 30 million euros). A bonus of 100 euros was offered to employees who read a book and presented it to their colleagues, in two scheduled meetings each month. “The initiative works and has spread among employees”, says Danilo Dadda, CEO (Avvenire, 3 April): “I strongly believe in the value of culture and education. I’m the first to dedicate time to reading and studying. Sometimes, tiredness or maybe laziness stop people from reading, so I decided to encourage my employees to read. From book to book, from speech to speech, it improves the working world and makes life better”.