Readers flock to apocalyptic fiction amid coronavirus outbreak

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rachel Colby’s choice for a recent Sunday night movie was hardly the sort of escapism that many people seek in times of crisis. Instead, it was the all-too-real 2011 Matt Damon movie “Contagion.”

But rather than add to any possible distress due to the current coronavirus crisis, the film about a deadly infection spreading across the globe allayed some of Colby’s fears.

“Some of our friends were like, ‘That might make your anxiety worse,’ but when we watched it, it actually made us feel better,” said Colby, a 25-year-old University District resident. “It showed the worst-case scenario, and it was a wake-up call that that’s life — it’s scary but I’d rather be educated on how to handle these situations.”

Experts say there may be an underlying logic behind why some people choose to seek out tales that hit close to home during a state of emergency.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a professor in the school of communication at Ohio State University, said that fictional movies and books — with their clearly defined beginning, middle and end — tend to provide a sense of relief when compared with the uncertainty found in news reports.

“In fictional portrayals, you’ll still find something that gives you hope or meaning or a sense of justice,” Knoblock-Westerwick said. “In reality, it’s so hard to predict anything; even the scientists don’t have a full understanding yet.”

Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State, added that fictional media relating to a trauma that people are experiencing — even one as trivial as a breakup — resonates strongly.

“People are trying to deal with these emotions,” Grizzard said. “That can give us comfort, seeing people who are experiencing the same things as we are.”

That might explain why some central Ohio libraries are seeing increased demand for titles such as Albert Camus’ existential classic “The Plague” (35 holds on the electronic book at the Columbus Metropolitan Library) and post-apocalyptic novels such as Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

Though holds on print books have been paused until libraries reopen, patrons at the Columbus Metropolitan Library could have to wait for weeks for the downloadable audiobook of “The Stand,” which follows a group of survivors of a weaponized strain of influenza. The audiobook has a wait list of nearly 100, and the e-book has about 70 holds.

“The Road,” which follows a man and his son on a journey through a post-apocalyptic world, has about 100 holds on the audiobook, and “Station Eleven,” a 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel centered around a devastating swine flu pandemic, has about 50 people waiting on the e-book and another 50 waiting on the audiobook.

One book that has seen a revival at many libraries is an out-of-print 1981 Dean Koontz novel, “Eyes of Darkness.” Because its plot includes a bioweapon that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, many speculated that Koontz “predicted” the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected there. The Ohio Digital Library — a consortium of member libraries — has almost 250 holds on three copies of the audiobook and more than 350 holds on nine copies of the e-book.

Although none of these titles crack the top-10 list of most-requested items at several central Ohio libraries, Chrissie Harris, who is part of a team that selects titles for Columbus Metropolitan Library’s 23 locations, still said that the number of holds is outside the norm.

Harris said she can’t help but think that part of the spike in requests has to do with coronavirus-related anxiety while people are looking to pass the time during self-isolation.

“I think people might be looking for human stories a little more,” she said. “When people want to know how this might affect my life, the fiction and movies really speak to the human piece.”


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