A major publisher has reported a huge increase in the sales of books about the spread of viruses and diseases, according to a UK-based charity.

The Reading Agency said Penguin Classics had experienced a 1393% increase in sales of The Viral Storm by the biologist Nathan Wolfe, which explores the spread of contagions.

Journal Of The Plague Year, which is a fictional account of the spread of disease in London written by Daniel Defoe and published in 1722, has also had a 750% rise in sales.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which is a collection of stories about a plague sweeping through Florence in Italy, has experienced a 288% uplift in sales, and The Bethrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, which recounts a virus in Milan, has sold 181% more copies.

The figures, based on a comparison with the week before the lockdown, show sales of The Plague by Albert Camus are also up.

The research was published ahead of World Book Night this evening, an annual campaign encouraging people to take part in a reading hour from 7pm to 8pm by taking time out with a book either on their own or with their family.

Debbie Hicks, creative director at The Reading Agency, said: "This year's World Book Night celebrations provide the perfect opportunity to showcase the proven power of reading to connect people through reading.

"Never has this connectivity been needed more than at this anxious time of social distancing."

Author Anthony Horowitz, who created the Alex Rider series of novels for young people, said he was not surprised by the study's findings, explaining that people were turning to the books as a way of understanding the crisis.

"I would have said that when something inexplicable like this happens, you do look to fiction to try to make sense of it," he said.

"I myself read The Plague recently."

He added: "It is a strange thing that fiction often provides the answers to real life.

Jump in readership numbers among 18 to 24-year-olds

The research has also shown that nearly half of 18 to 24-year-olds, and one in three adults, have been reading more since the lockdown began.

Mr Horowitz said he was "not at all surprised" by the findings, and added that he hopes one of the lasting impacts of the coronavirus lockdown is that people will continue to read more once restrictions are lifted.

"Maybe one of those things is that children will rediscover the absolute joy of reading," he said.

"I would hope that when this is over children, young people and their parents will remember the pleasure of a book and the pleasure of finding the time to read a book."

He added that as everyone's lives are "so much emptier now than they were" people may start to question the worth of some of the things they filled their time with before.