Where will books be, post Covid-19?

Ahlam Bolooki, Festival Director, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Filed on August 13, 2020

Reading between the lines of a future that will be undeniably and irrevocably changed by the pandemic

The last few months have seen unprecedented changes in the way we live - and the pandemic, whether we've had the virus or not, has affected all of us. We yearn for the way we used to live our lives, while accepting that some things may have changed forever.

Perhaps one of the sectors that has felt the greatest impact, and is going to take longer to recover, is arts and culture. With social distancing still paramount, it seems an anathema now to think of crowds of people gathering together in a gallery, theatre or other venue, and it may take some time after the pandemic has subsided for some to feel comfortable in that environment again.

We are being cautiously optimistic in our plans to hold the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next February, and are very keen to ensure that visitors will experience the same vibrant event - although due to social distancing measures, not on the same scale as in previous years. Other events will face the same dilemma and I think we will start to see many more collaborations within the arts and culture scene to help each other get through this difficult time.

The lockdown has shown us how necessary the arts are, and how desperately we all took comfort in stories to help us feel connected to the world around us. There was certainly an upsurge in reading during the last few months, as people with more time on their hands rediscovered that books could help us make sense of our changed circumstances, or provide solace or escapism. Being cut off from the outside world brought out our intense need to experience stories - to feel happy, sad, afraid, enthused. We needed the sensory awakening that stories and literature offered us in the safety of our homes.

Although reading as a pastime increased during the lockdown, it was digital and audio books that saw the greatest increase in sales. I anticipate an even faster growth in e-book and audio book sales, as people behave more cautiously around the physical exchange of items such as books.

We can also expect to see an influx of books around the pandemic experience. The Black Plague in the 14th century, and Spanish flu in the last, provided rich inspiration for many authors writing at that time, or looking back across history. There will be a shift in perceptions as we accept the new normal and rewrite the story from here onwards. Whether it's psychological, scientific or world politics, these days have changed life as we know it forever, and that will be reflected in our region's literature.

We will see reading for pleasure and literature become more prominent in schools. As safety measures make it more difficult for children to engage in extra-curricular activities, reading and storytelling will offer the personal growth and feed the curiosity of children, which may otherwise be limited.

The virtual space will offer access like never before in bringing a global community of writers together in conversation and collaboration. I recently saw a virtual event that had Elif Shafak, Rabeeh Alemmedine, Zeina Hashem Beck and other authors take part in a tribute for Beirut. Online events allow for a more agile approach in bringing authors together, and make the industry less introspective. A more outward focus will help authors be appreciated beyond their own particular region and I hope that our regional authors will take this opportunity to be inspired by the global conversation and write outside of their own environments and experiences.

We are already experiencing success internationally, with Avni Doshi, a Dubai-based writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker with her debut novel Burnt Sugar, and Polly Phillips, who has just won a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, becoming the ninth author to be published as a result of the Emirate Airline Festival of Literature's competition, the Montegrappa Writing Prize. There are eyes on our region's talent and I hope we will see Emirati writers have global recognition in a similar way very soon.