Nine-year-old Lucy Harkness of Portland has read about 250 books since the pandemic started. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nine-year-old Lucy Harkness used to do have days filled with school, gymnastics, soccer or some other extra-curricular activity.

But since the pandemic began, the Portland fourth-grader’s life – not to mention her family’s home – has become filled with books. Her mother, who works at the Portland Public Library, brings home a shopping bag full of them every few weeks. Her family estimates Lucy’s read 250 books in the past year, ranging from graphic novels and young adult books to classics like “Little Women.”

“It’s something for me to do instead of just sitting around. I’m usually done my school work by 10 a.m.,” said Lucy, who goes to Reiche School two days a week and does remote learning the other three. “With nothing to do, I just started reading more and more. I don’t keep track of how many, but I’ll tell myself I need to finish a book by Friday so I can start another one.”

While many Mainers have used the pandemic’s forced downtime to simply read more, some have approached the task with the kind of energy and self-discipline usually exhibited by long-distance runners. Some have challenged themselves to read books on topics out of their comfort zone, intimidating classics or renowned series they never got around to before. For others, it’s about quantity and trying to reach numeric goals.

Alanna Reid, a 33-year-old federal government worker from Portland, had set a personal goal of reading 50 books last year, before the pandemic started. She ended up reading 160. She set the bar at 150 books for 2021 and, as of early April, had already finished 74. Reid says her reading really picked up when she began working from home last year and stopped going out to dinner or socializing with friends as much. She joined three book groups and began reading to fill the time and take her mind off pandemic-related troubles.

“I was really missing going out, or traveling and seeing my family,” said Reid.

She was already a reader but is challenging herself to read about a greater variety of topics. She’s part of the Portland Public Library’s Reading Challenge, which started a couple years before the pandemic, where people try to read at least 24 books a year in 24 different categories. A few categories this year include a book that scares you, a comedic memoir, and a book by an Iranian or Iranian-American author. For the last category, she read “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea” by Dina Nayeri, a novel about a young Iranian woman who finds inspiration in her love of Western culture.

Reid’s also been taking more neighborhood walks lately and scours Little Free Libraries she finds along the way, looking for a new book that might have been recommended by someone in one of her groups. She also listens to audio books while walking.

“I just feel like I’ve had a lot more time for books,” said Reid. “I’ve learned that I tend to underestimate how much I can read.”

Tasha Graff of Portland read “War and Peace” as part of a Quarantine Book Club, plus a lot of other books this past year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Tasha Graff, an English teacher at South Portland High School, decided this was the year she’d finally read “War and Peace.” At more than 1,200 pages, the 1869 novel by Russian Leo Tolstoy is a challenge for most people. It’s become a common joke to compare any overly long piece of writing to “War and Peace.”

Graff, 35, has long challenged herself when it comes to reading. About seven years ago, she became “a little horrified” when she realized so many of her favorite books were written by white men, so she decided to challenge herself by reading mostly books by women or people of color. She’s stuck to that and usually reads more than 100 books a year, she said.

But “War and Peace” intimidated her. She had started and stopped reading it at least a couple times. Then she read about a Princeton University creative writing professor named Yiyun Li, who had proposed a quarantine plan for getting through “War and Peace” by reading just 12 to 15 pages a day. That sounded manageable to Graff. So she started a reading group – the Quarantine Book Club – with her parents and some of their friends, to read the Tolstoy work and discuss it weekly on Zoom.

It took her 85 days to read the 1,215-page edition.

“I had been intimidated by it, but once I read it, I found it funny and quite a delight to read. I didn’t expect that,” said Graff, who lives in Portland.

As someone who is twice retired – once from the Navy and once from an airline pilot’s job – Jim Wilson of Brunswick already had some time on his hands. But when COVID-19 cases began mounting last year, the 73-year-old found himself staying home more and more. He eventually thought of a project for himself; he would finally read all 21 books of the Aubrey/Maturin saga by Patrick O’Brian. The series of novels is set during the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago and focuses on the British Navy. There are more than 6,500 pages in Wilson’s editions.

Wilson bought the series years ago after a sterling recommendation from an airline co-worker, who had read the entire series twice and was reading it a third time. Wilson had started the series more than once, but something always seemed to get in the way. With the world shut down last year, there was nothing to keep Wilson from his nautical adventures. He’s read six books so far – taking a break between each one to catch up on National Geographic and other magazines – and has no plans to stop. He loves the authenticity of the books and the fact that O’Brian used actual ship’s log books as the basis for some of his stories.

“It’s just so easy to read and so fascinating,” said Wilson. “I don’t know if it’s because I was in the Navy. But this is about the British Navy in the age of sail, and I don’t know much about that.”

During the pandemic, Jim Wilson of Brunswick, a retired pilot, has set a goal to read all 21 books of the Aubrey/Maturin saga by Patrick O’Brian. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Deborah Gould of Brunswick issued herself a different sort of reading challenge when the pandemic started last year. With time on her hands, she decided she’d finally cull some of the several hundred books filling shelves in her living room. But as an avid reader and professional writer – whose works include “The Eastern” novels, set on the Eastern River in Pittston – she didn’t want to simply pick books off the shelf blindly and give them away. Before getting rid of any books, she would read them to make sure she really wanted to let go. So she did. And she didn’t.

So far, she’s read about 40 and has not been able to part with one. The varied list of books she’s decided to keep includes works by Maine authors Bruce Robert Coffin and Paul Doiron, Susan Strasser’s nonfiction “Never Done: A History of American Housework” and Robert C. O’Brien’s children’s book “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” The last is about a widowed field mouse who seeks the help from former laboratory rats to save her home from demolition.

“I found myself reading or re-reading these books I’ve owned for years and was astounded that they seemed like old friends,” said Gould, 74. “They were comfortable and reassuring in these totally upended times.”

While Gould found old friends on bookshelves, Lucy Harkness discovered new worlds and skills, said her mother, Rachael Harkness, programming manager at the Portland Public Library. Lucy ended up reading some books her family didn’t expect her to read until high school. She’s read James Herriot’s novels about a British veterinarian set in the mid-20th century, “Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery, lots of graphic novels, young adult series and occasional New Yorker articles, her mother said. Lucy has also joined a book club this year, so she can discuss books with other kids.

“It’s been a big blessing after having so little school to attend. She always loved reading but now she has time to explore and make it part of her lifestyle,” Rachael Harkness said. “I’m envious.”

Nine-year-old Lucy Harkness of Portland finds she finishes her school work pretty early on remote learning days, giving her plenty of time to read. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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