The power of books is more important now than ever

Books and stories are a lifeline to people going through hard times. Siena Parker, head of creative responsibility at Penguin Random House UK, tells us what the publishing giant is doing to help people in need

2020 is not the year anyone expected it to be. Over the last few months, life as we all know it has been turned upside down in ways we never expected.

As a book publisher, Penguin isn’t perhaps an obvious source of support during the coronavirus pandemic. After all, we aren’t a critical service which so many brilliant organisations and individuals offer to keep society going – whether that’s the NHS, care homes, or supermarkets.

But, at a time when many people might feel anxious and alone, we believe books do have a role to play. Books have always been a way to unlock the imagination, to explore new worlds and meet new characters, to have adventures from the comfort of your own armchair. Given the limitations of our current situation, we need this escape now more than ever. Research shows that children who read for pleasure are more likely to do well at school, and that reading books can benefit our mental wellbeing by reducing stress and helping us relax. And, of course, they give us that all-important message – we are not alone.

Now, more than ever, we want to ensure that the joy of reading is available to everyone – including those who may not have the means or money to buy books right now. That’s why we’re getting thousands of free books into the hands of people who face particular hardship, working with grassroots community causes nationwide. Working in partnership with community platform Neighbourly, our books have made their way to causes like food bank network UK Harvest, and London homeless charity Rhythms of Life.

We have also partnered with Hospital Radio and National Prison Radio to broadcast a carefully curated selection of free audiobooks to patients in NHS hospitals, and people in prison across the UK. In hospitals there are strict limitations on visiting all patients, meaning many people are in even more need of comfort, humour and distraction than ever before. Similarly, many prisons are currently enforcing stricter measures and inmates are confined to their cells for large portions of the day, with many activities on hold.

Of course, we know that books, and their benefits, are just one piece in the much bigger puzzle of what makes up mental wellbeing. But whilst books can’t change the current circumstances, we hope they have a part to play in helping people get through them.