Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Aug 10: Dr. Scott Atlas from the Hoover Institute joins the White House Coronavirus Task Force as an advisor. Previously, Atlas was a vocal advocate for herd immunity as well as limited use of face masks.  Shortly after Atlas’ appointment, 98 immunologists, epidemiologists and infectious diseases physicians criticize Atlas and his views stating that “to prevent harm to the public’s health,” they “have both a moral and an ethical responsibility to call attention to the falsehoods and misrepresentations of science recently fostered by Dr. Scott Atlas.” Hundreds are arrested in Chicago after a night of protests and looting.

Aug 11: Joe Biden announces that he has picked Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate. Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, will be the first woman of color on a major party ticket. Despite still waiting on final data, the Trump administration reportedly agrees to pay $1.5 billion to Moderna for 100 million doses of its vaccine candidate, mRNA-1273, or an average per-dose price of $15. The vaccine, however, is still under investigation in the joint phase 3 COVE trial Moderna is conducting with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Russian President Vladimir Putin says that Russia has developed the first approved vaccine against COVID-19.  President Trump says that the federal government will purchase 100 million doses of Moderna’s experimental coronavirus vaccine, now in late-stage human trials. The COVID daily death toll rises over 1,000 again. 

From the Cutting Room Floor...

At the grocery store today, I see one of my favorite graduate students re-stacking the shelves in the bread aisle. She teaches American History for us as an adjunct instructor in the evenings, but the pay is nowhere near enough to cover rent and food. I always feel guilty when I see her in the store. She seems a little embarrassed, too. “Did you hear the good news?” she asks, straining to see me through her glasses as they fog up behind her mask. 

“I did!” I don’t know if she can see me smiling behind my mask so I squinch my eyes up as a sign of happiness. “I was rooting for Kamala all along.”

She looks up and nods. “Kamala could take on all of them.” She says this last sentence quietly so as to not be heard by the middle-aged woman in her workout clothes who has just leaned over to pick out a $5.50 loaf of Dave’s Killer Bread. I nod at my student as she returns to her work.

She is right; Harris is not someone to underestimate. Born in Oakland, educated at The Mecca, at Howard University, law degree at the University of California. District attorney and a Senator since 2017. Her mother is an endocrinologist from India and her father is an African American emeritus professor of economics at Stanford. She comes from a long list of hard-working scientists and intellectuals and her debating skills are unparalleled.

A few minutes later, as I am standing in line at the checkout counter, the two women in front of me bring up Harris’ new appointment. “You know, she’s not an American, just like Obama,” one woman says to the other, her eyes widening for effect as she hugs her daughter and flashes her a warm smile. “Fox says Harris might not be able to take over as president if Biden died.”

The other woman pushes her cart forward a few inches and then leans back. “As if we needed another reason for Trump!” 

Back in April, the Harvard Kennedy School of Misinformation Review published an article arguing that watching Fox News correlated with expressing more inaccuracies regarding COVID-19 than did consumers of other media.[1] Despite all the inaccuracies and scandals that have wracked Fox over the years, millions of people continue to watch. Fox News is currently leading the pack in primetime viewership.[2] One of the big questions for this year is why?

The answer is no doubt over-determined. There are probably many causes, not the least of which relates to the simple, repeated messaging that Fox and Trump are so adept at mobilizing. Fox, Trump, Limbaugh—they all feed on our basest fears, on our centuries of racism and jingoism, and on our desire to feel proud and secure in the world.

There is an additional cause that is perhaps less obvious; the persistence of and susceptibility to misinformation could also be tied to lower engagement with reading books. Here, I am not speaking of newspapers, magazines, blogs, tweets, snaps, or Instagram posts, but books. For years, the National Endowment for the Arts has tracked Americans’ desire to read books. With one major exception—the aspirational year of 2008 (which was perhaps not coincidentally the year of the great recession)—the trend for the last four decades has been a decline in book readers.[7] This does not mean that books are not selling. Saying that reading is dropping is not the same as saying paper book sales are dropping.[8] Before 2020, in fact, sales were increasing, especially at independent bookstores.[9]

How can we explain this gap between book reading and book purchasing? According to the Pew Research Center, literature that appeals to whiter, wealthier, more educated women always does well. Men, even the educated ones, are much less likely to read books in any form, with less educated, rural men especially, unlikely to “unclasp the secret book” and read on matters “deep and dangerous.”[10] One in three men did not even attempt to read a book in any form during 2018-19.[11] During the first part of 2020, after the House of Representatives impeached the president and was awaiting his trial in the Senate, Porter Anderson at “Publishing Perspectives” noticed that books with sharply partisan messages were racing off shelves.[12] While most of the country was in lockdown from March through May, Bible sales skyrocketed. At the same, people reported actually reading their Bibles less.[13]

My colleagues and I have been direct witnesses to the decline in book reading, even though we teach at a major research university. Undergraduate students who could once plow through six books in a semester now balk if more than three are listed on the syllabus. When I first became a professor over a decade ago, it was common to expect students to read one hundred pages per course, per week. Now the average is closer to twenty pages. The problem is not just with adults; EducationWorld reports that a majority of school children do not open books unless for a school assignment.[14]

At the same time, possessing and displaying books, taking selfies in bookstores, and posting book covers to Instagram remain a common cultural practice. This is because books still function as cultural talisman and signifier of identity. They indicate that you are the kind of person who values books enough to purchase and display them. Just as they did two thousand years ago, they place you within the educated class that ostensibly reads to learn. They also function as articulations of one’s desired self. It is common knowledge that, if you want to get to know a person, first you check their bookshelf. This trope has become so entrenched that people now post “shelfies” on dating apps in order to help decide if someone might be a good match. This has become particularly critical in the last few months, when all that you see of a person is their head and shoulders floating before a manicured background, framed by a computer monitor. I have, just this week, read posts on the internet about how to “curate” my bookshelf for my upcoming courses on Zoom. I have decided to put the Solzhenitsyn and Franz Fanon nearer to the camera while tucking out of sight my disintegrating copies of Dune and Our Bodies, Ourselves. Even now, in writing that sentence, I am signaling who I am—or at least, who I want the world to think I am.

But putting the book on display is not the same as reading it. The Bibles that people bought over the last few months turn out not to be “reading copies”; they were coffee table books, broken into the individual books of the Bible, like 1 Samuel, Two Corinthians (that’s a Trump joke), and Ezra, decorated with peaceful nature photography, broad white margins, and richly serifed typefaces.[16] The selfies in independent bookshops (#Bookstagram), the Bible-themed art books, the pro-Trump or anti-Trump partisan tweet-analysis books—by-in-large, they are not for reading; they are for showing the rest of the world that you are a person who is doing the hard work of book reading, if only you could find the time.[17]

Perhaps there is some connection to be drawn between the not-reading of the bought-books and the lack of skepticism among viewers of America’s number one primetime news show.



[1] Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Dolores Albarracín, “The Relation between Media Consumption and Misinformation at the Outset of the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic in the US,” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, April 17, 2020,

[2] Michael M. Grynbaum, “Boycotted. Criticized. But Fox News Leads the Pack in Prime Time.,” The New York Times, August 9, 2020,

[7] National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence” (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, November 2007),

[8] Natasha Frost, “Book Sales Are up This Year over Last Year, and Physical Books Are Thriving,” Quartz, December 28, 2018,

[9] Colin Ainsworth, “Book Sales Are Soaring—And Not Just the Digital Kind,” January 17, 2019,; Kate Knibbs, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Changing How People Buy Books,” Wired, April 27, 2020,

[10] Andrew Perrin, “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?,” Pew Research Center (blog), September 26, 2019, William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Act I, Scene 3, line 521.

[11] Andrew Perrin, “One-in-Five Americans Now Listen to Audiobooks,” Pew Research Center (blog), September 25, 2019,

[12] Porter Anderson, “On Both Sides of the Divide, Political Books Are Soaring,” Publishing Perspectives, January 21, 2020,

[13] Aaron Earls, “Americans Finding Solace in Streaming, Not Scripture,” Facts & Trends, August 26, 2020,

[14] Kassondra Granata, “Tech May Be to Blame for Decline in Students’ Reading for Pleasure Education World,” EducationWorld, n.d.,

[16] Caleb Parke, “Coronavirus Outbreak Spurs Record Bible Purchases: ‘People Are Looking for Hope,’” Fox News (Fox News, April 6, 2020),

[17] Nisha Chittal, “Independent Bookstores Are Growing — and Instagram Helped,” Vox, December 19, 2018,

Read more

“Biden Picks Harris As Running Mate,” NPR, August 11, 2020,

“Trump Speaks after Kamala Harris Chosen for 2020 Dem VP,” Fox News, August 11, 2020.

Danielle Bainbridge, “Do we still need libraries?” Origin of Everything, PBS Digital Media, June 18, 2019,

Lucy Handley, “Why physical books still outsell e-books,” CNBC Reports, September 18, 2019,


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Facher, Lev. “Pharma Is Showering Congress with Cash, Even amid Coronavirus.” STAT, August 10, 2020.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.