Pandemic Plot Twists

“Pandemic Plot Twists: It’s a storyline with screen fatigue, ‘real’ books and blue light glasses,” TheBurg, February 2021.

There’s never been a better time to get lost in a book.

“An ironic positive side effect of the pandemic is that people are falling back in love with reading,” said Alex Brubaker, manager of Harrisburg’s Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

One downside of a work-from-home lifestyle is screen fatigue. But an upside of a stay-at-home lifestyle seems to be a return to reading—real, hold-in-your-hand, paper books.

“As people are staying inside more often, they are trying to find something to do away from their screens—activities and hobbies that don’t have to do with a computer screen,” Brubaker said. “Books are one thing people are coming back to. The pandemic is reigniting their love of books.”

Print sales are up 6% across the entire industry, he said, although indie bookstore sales are down 30%—a phenomenon he attributes to the popularity of Amazon.

Midtown Scholar has kept its doors closed since March, which has resulted in “an enormous hit on sales,” said Brubaker.

“On the flip side, online sales are up,” he said.

And the bookstore made creative pivots to online author discussions, outdoor sidewalk sales and curbside pickup.

Page Turners

So, what are people reading amid the pandemic?

“There’s been a great surge in book sales related to the Black Lives Matter movement and current events,” Brubaker said.

For others, real life is too real these days. They crave escapism, science fiction, fantasy, fiction and humor, including new books by David Sedaris and Jerry Seinfeld.

“Reading was my lifeline during the spring closure and the isolation resulting from the pandemic,” said Karen Cullings, executive director of Dauphin County Library System (DCLS). “Reading about issues became even more important to me, so I could understand and process my feelings about current events. And relaxing with a lighter book—I love mysteries—was an important escape when things got to be too much.”

DCLS circulation was down 43% in 2020, compared to 2019. Cullings said those numbers aren’t surprising, given the libraries’ closures and restrictions.

Meantime, online library services took off. Catalog searches were up 108%, eBook usage increased 29%, and use of eContent such as movies and music increased by 17%.

Personal touches at DCLS became more meaningful amid the pandemic. The libraries launched BookAdvisor, a personalized book selection service, and offered curbside pickup—books-to-go.

“Library members have been extremely supportive and expressed gratitude for the library and what it provides during the pandemic,” Cullings said.

She’s received numerous thank-you notes, some hand-written, even accompanying donations.

Many readers say they feel a more personal connection with the books they’re reading, in-hand.

“Reading books in print offers a deep reading experience,” Brubaker said. “Some readers say they can’t or don’t do eBooks because they hurt their eyes or have screen fatigue. Other people say they don’t like reading on their device, because the potential for distraction goes up when emails come in.”

So are real paper books healthier for our eyes?

“When you have real paper, there’s not a light source projecting from screen, and you’re definitely going to get less exposure to blue light,” said Dr. Alan McLin of Morrison Eye Associates, with locations in Harrisburg, Hershey and Dillsburg.

In Light of the Pandemic

Eye doctors nationwide are seeing an increase in patients reporting eye strain, due to greater numbers of people working from home and attending school online—then spending downtime on their phones. McLin’s patients are following these trends.

“Our exposure to blue light emitting devices is dramatically increasing,” said McLin, who’s been an eye doctor for 30 years.

So what exactly is blue light?

Within the visible spectrum of light, blue light is at the end of the spectrum of colors produced by shorter wavelengths, McLin said.

“That end of the spectrum has more energy per se, so the amount of it, and the energy of that blue light is what can potentially affect your eyes,” McLin explained.

While blue light is emitted from digital devices—computers and phone screens—it also naturally exists in sunlight.

“More research on blue light is needed to be conclusive,” McLin said. “But we know it does have some ill effects. It causes eye fatigue or strain and may contribute to macular degeneration. It affects your circadian rhythms—how you adjust to being awake and being asleep—and inhibits melatonin—your sleep hormone—which keeps you awake and alert.”

So, basically, staring at a screen all day can hurt your health, and McLin said many of us also have bad posture and other habits that contribute to pain and fatigue.

Sight for Sore Eyes

Following national trends, McLin is receiving more patient requests for blue light-blocking glasses, which have a special coating that inhibits blue light. McLin likens them to sunglasses that filter harmful ultraviolet light.

And just like sunglasses, blue light blocking glasses can be combined with a prescription—something McLin said he does every day—or they can be worn without prescription lenses.

“They’re rampant on the internet right now,” said McLin. “There’s definitely an awareness, and millennials are all over this.”

While some patients put them on and say their eyes immediately feel more comfortable, McLin calls that “a placebo effect.”

“You’re not going to have that effect right away, but when people say their eyes don’t feel as fatigued at the end of the day, that’s a real benefit,” McLin said. “That’s not imaginary, and it’s not a gimmick.”

And, after all, don’t we all want a happy ending?


Midtown Scholar Bookstore is located at 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg and online at 
midtownscholar.com.

Learn more about the Dauphin County Library System at dcls.org.

Dr. Alan McLin practices at Morrison Eye Associates, including a location at 235 Division St., Harrisburg, with more information at morrisoneye.com.

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