Among the 800,000 furloughed federal employees — who appear headed back to work, at least temporarily, after an agreement was reached on Friday — and those affected by the government shutdown, there’s a cycle of now-familiar feelings that circle like tenacious hawks. Among them: Uncertainty. Frustration. Anger. Powerlessness. Fear.
And, for some, an equally tenacious desire to keep reading.
I started noticing the trend in my own home, where my husband, furloughed federal employee Adam Wendell, has been burning through books at a startling pace. It’s a good alternative to checking Twitter every 10 minutes to see if the shutdown has ended, he explains.
Before being furloughed, he’d been reading the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, and had finished the first five of the 15 over four months. Since the shutdown began, on Dec. 22, he’s finished nine more — no, make that 10 as of today. For purely nerdy purposes, we calculated: That’s over 4,000 pages in 28 days. Aside from filling his days with books he had already planned to read, it’s also helping him sleep at night.
“It keeps me from worrying all the time,” he says, “so I only worry part of the time.”
Magical crime-fighting is his thing, and he likes to binge read, which makes a long series ideal, but there’s another benefit: Montgomery County Public Library has an ample supply, so he’s borrowing them one after the other without spending money he’s not making.
It’s a rather substantial act of trust to place one’s time and energy in the hands of a writer, especially during a difficult period. A reader, especially a fan of certain genres, begins a novel confident that there will be a competent resolution, that all will be well in the end. For some furloughed workers unable to seek additional employment — and those adjacent to the terrible standstill — seeking literary solace is only natural.
While local library systems have a hard time determining whether recent upticks in checkouts are due to the shutdown, bad weather (there’s always a run on library books, not just milk and toilet paper, before a snowstorm) or other factors, Arlington County has noticed a pronounced increase in its e-book and e-audio circulation from January 2018 to January 2019. While there’s typically a jump of between 1,000 and 3,000 titles, this year it’s closer to 12,000. The number of holds and unique users has also been uncharacteristically high. Montgomery County has seen circulation of physical items from the Adult Materials Collection increase 4 percent over last year, and I am willing to bet my household alone is responsible for a lot of that. Meanwhile, Politics and Prose, which is offering furloughed workers discounts on books, reports that 200 customers have taken advantage of the offer so far.
“Thank goodness for books right now,” says Stacie Chapman, a Maryland-based survey statistician at the Census Bureau. “They are the only thing keeping me half sane!”
The shutdown has increased Chapman’s reading pace and broadened her horizons. Usually she’s a “250- to 350-page book girl,” she explains, but with more time on her hands, her books are getting bigger. She recently finished “Obsidio,” the third in the Illuminae series, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, which is more than 600 pages long.
The fantastical series, an award-winning YA space opera, is particularly appealing at the moment.
“Reading takes me away from reality, and the reality right now is awful,” Chapman says. “If I’m reading, I’m not refreshing the news or Twitter and getting angrier and angrier. Instead I stay nice and relaxed.”
Chapman has always been a voracious reader, but her January totals are astonishing: She’s finished 29 books so far this month, sourced from the public library, her personal stash and Kindle Unlimited.
“That’s abnormal, even for me,” she says, though it does offer her a feeling of accomplishment as she crosses off titles on her to-read list.
In Oklahoma, Barb Mayes Boustead, a meteorologist instructor with the National Weather Service, is also filling her extra time with written words.
“I have a stack about 12 books deep on my nightstand that have been queued for a while,” she says. The four she either just finished or is working through — all gifts — include “Educated” by Tara Westover, “Boom Town” by Sam Anderson and “Winter in Paradise” by Elin Hilderbrand.
“When I’m working, I might squeeze in a chapter or half chapter at bedtime, if I’m lucky, and not every day can I manage that,” she says. “These days I can get a little more, though I wish I had time to just sit and read a book all day. I have not had that day yet.”
But that could change if the shutdown resumes.
The fourth book Boustead is working through is Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires,” which was selected for a read-along by the nonprofit Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, of which Boustead is president. Boustead has been thinking a lot about Wilder lately.
“I have a lot of quotes from her very much on the tip of my tongue,” she says. Lately, it’s: “There’s no great loss without some small gain.”
As a person adjacent to a furloughed employee, I’ve noticed an increase in my own reading, too. The stress of unemployment doesn’t just end with the employees, of course, and I’ve raced through 17 books — and over 4,000 pages — since the furlough email arrived.
I have a theory for why reading, especially reading genre fiction, offers solace beyond simply filling up extra time: There’s always an ending, and it’s satisfying. In genre fiction of every stripe, you can be confident that problems will get solved. When something terrible happens, there’s resolution, retribution or both. Those who seek to harm the vulnerable will be brought to justice or, at the very least, rendered impotent.
“The happy ending is pretty much guaranteed,” Chapman agrees. “Nice change from what’s going on in the world.”
Sarah Wendell is the author of three books and co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, one of the most popular and longest-running online communities devoted to romance fiction.