- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has created a bit of a cult following for Dorsey Armstrong, a professor of medieval literature at Purdue University, who four years ago recorded a Great Courses lecture series on the Black Death.

The lectures have always been well-reviewed, but in the weeks since the coronavirus infected the cultural bloodstream, the series has become a runaway hit. The Great Courses says views and listens tripled in late March, compared to a month earlier.

And good luck finding a paper copy of “The Plague,” Albert Camus’s fictional study of the social pressures of an epidemic. The book flew off library shelves in the days before most of them shut down amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But online is a different story. It’s now a top seller for Kindle users in the medical books category, followed by “Spillover,” a book about animal infections that leap to humans, and a couple of books about influenza. A do-it-yourself guide to crafting hand sanitizer and a guide to homemade masks both crack Kindle’s medical top 15.

Call it epidemic entertainment: The pandemic is reshaping what America is reading, watching and listening to.



Everyone seems to have a list of quarantine classics or new offerings to suggest to those who find themselves with time at home and little to do.

And, thanks to the digital economy, gratification is instant, with streaming or downloads.

“Contagion,” a 2011 film that seemed to presage COVID-19, shot up the charts of Apple’s iTunes movie rentals list in February, cracking the top 10 by early March and rising as high as the top three on March 20, before sliding back a bit.

“Outbreak,” a 1995 offering, also surged, breaking into the Apple charts in mid-March, before dropping out by the end of the month.

Charles Coletta, a professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, said the rise and fall in interest seems like a normal pattern for major disruptions like this.

Earlier in the pandemic he said he was one of those taking to Twitter to post pandemic-themed popular culture items. But as the news turned more grim, he turned more escapist.

He said he’s gotten that same sense from others in the university community.

“A lot of people are trying to find comfort food — things they enjoy, to take them away for a brief moment, turn off the news, find something you like to do, or want to know more about,” Mr. Coletta said.

Netflix declined to talk about its numbers, but those who track these things say pandemic movies were big earlier in March, but have since given way to what Mr. Coletta called the ultimate escapist show: “Tiger King,” a documentary that follows the travails of Joe Exotic, who ran a private zoo with more than 200 tigers and was convicted of trying to put out a contract hit on a woman who tried to shut him down.

Still, there are plenty of people who want to lean into pandemic-lit, soaking up whatever they can.

Vintage/Anchor Books, the American publisher of “The Plague,” said sales for the Camus book in the first three months of this year have already surpassed all of 2019.

“People are absolutely turning to books in this strange, scary time; some for comfort, some for entertainment, some for understanding, or all of these,” said James Meader, executive director of publicity for the publisher.

At The Great Courses, Ms. Armstrong’s Black Death lecture was already in the top five in the last half of February, but interest surged in the final weeks of March. Both number of plays and total minutes streamed tripled.

Rounding out the top three lectures in late March were “An Introduction to Infectious Diseases,” and “Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know.”

Some of those views were regulars shifting over from other lectures, but there were plenty of new consumers too, with views rising nearly 50%.

Paul Suijk, president of the Teaching Company, which releases The Great Courses, said they usually get about 300 to 400 new customers a day. That rose 10-fold late last month.

“We do see kind of a captive audience at home, parents want to watch with their kids, something better than gaming,” he said.

Audible, which sells audiobooks, also noticed the trend of family-friendly fare, reporting millions of daily visits to Audible Stories, with hundreds of kid-friendly titles available free of charge.

The first Harry Potter book was added to the service on April 1 — in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish — and the company called the response “overwhelming.”

“In addition to many listeners of all ages taking the opportunity to explore the saga for the first time or revisit it as a well-loved classic, we are hearing from some customers that going back and forth between translations may help them with foreign language learning,” a company spokesman said.

Mr. Suijk said he’s noticed customers among the older set who used to watch Great Courses lectures on DVD but who have now switched to a more immediate format — perhaps using a phone or tablet given them to stay in touch with children or grandchildren during the coronavirus crisis.

Mr. Coletta said there’s a shared experience in the pandemic that’s going to give it serious staying power in popular culture. So expect epidemic epics out of Hollywood in a year or two’s time.

“This is going to be a whole genre,” he said.

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