Is BookTok ruining reading? Critics seem to think so

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Published Apr 12, 2024 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Reading is largely viewed as a net positive. Regardless of what is being read, the activity is widely considered to be mentally stimulating—a more beneficial alternative to doomscrolling all day. However, as BookTube and its successor BookTok have become very prominent in online spheres as of late, some have begun questioning whether or not this once undisputed opinion is inherently true.

All it takes is a quick search on YouTube and you’ll come across dozens of video essays outlining arguments for and against the type of reading a number of well-known book influencers have encouraged. In particular, critics of BookTube and BookTok have pointed out that reading has recently transformed into more of an aesthetic activity rather than a personal hobby or a mode of entertainment and relaxation.

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In part, this phenomenon can be attributed to the rise in book influencers who base most—if not all—of their content around reading. As a result, in order to churn out videos and content on a regular basis that has the ability to compete with other online creators, these BookTok influencers often read dozens and dozens of books a year at an exceedingly fast pace. In fact, most have annual reading goals that hover around the 100-book mark and they track their progress on both TikTok and Goodreads diligently.

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It’s also worth noting that in some cases, particularly for book influencers, reading (along with filming and editing) is a large component of their full-time jobs. But, for the average onlooker, this rapid turnover of books can seem equal parts aspirational and anxiety-inducing, as most social media is. As Barry Pierce, a former BookTuber who rose to prominence in the 2010s, wrote for GQ: “The act of reading became replaced by the act of being a reader.”

Even if you haven’t actively engaged with BookTube or BookTok, you’ve most likely encountered the communities at some point. These digital groups have extended their reach and now appear offline in bookstores. When you walk into a local shop, you’ll likely come across a table with a “BookTok” sign, complete with the internet’s favourite novels of the moment. Interestingly, Pierce describes them as “a subgenre of easily bingeable novels that all sort of have the same cover.”

Reddit users agree, with some making observations such as: “I think there kind of is a ‘fast fashion’ trend in books now. Most bookshops, and even just department stores (I’m in Australia, so Big W and Kmart) have a ‘booktok’ section prominently displayed. All grouped, it means perhaps the customer is less likely to just casually browse because they can just pick up a perfectly curated collection from the off.”

Alternatively, Gaby Lee, a genre fiction buyer at Waterstones, told The New Statesman that the online reading community “has fostered an exciting and dynamic bookselling landscape akin to the heyday of Harry Potter.” Both observations highlight how regularly buying books is an intrinsic part of BookTube and BookTok, for better or worse.

 

As of late, critics have compared some BookTube and BookTok videos to those outdated, but still prevalent fast fashion hauls, where influencers flaunt lavish bundles or products. It’s not uncommon to see dozens of books in a video, often with a curated bookshelf or even an at-home library behind them.

On the other hand, book un-haul content has also started to gain traction. In these videos, influencers discuss which books they’re donating or selling, often to make room for more new books. One example is a 51-minute long video from BookTuber MelReads wherein the creator declutters her bookshelf and talks in-depth about what she’s getting rid of.

That said, neither book haul nor un-haul videos truly reflect how the typical reader or consumer engages with books.

Ava Seaman, a writer for The Michigan Daily, admits: “I don’t buy every single book I read. It’s not financially feasible or sustainable for me or the average person. I used to think this was obvious for everyone, but as I’ve become acquainted with book influencing and getting a glimpse into other readers’ habits, I’ve realised that’s not the case.”

Seaman continues: “My hometown’s public library truly shaped me into the reader I am today. I was a big fan of the summer reading program. At the end of every receipt I get, after I check out a book, it tells me how much I saved by using the library. Since 2021, I’ve saved $1,933.64.”

Writing for The Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett also discusses the problems that lay beneath book ownership at large—without specifically mentioning BookTok—highlighting how it’s been an issue surrounding reading for decades. Cosslett frames “everything that is smug and middle class about the cult of book ownership” as “having a lot of books and boasting about it, [or] treating having a lot of books as a stand-in for your personality.” These things are separate from the act of reading, which almost anyone, granted they have a public library nearby, can do. 

Ultimately, BookTok has prompted many to take up reading as a hobby again and even helped some to find it fun for the first time. Like other aspirational influencer content, it can be comforting to watch similarly styled videos with a predictable structure and even to read books with well-known tropes and outcomes. However, it’s worth divorcing the activity from how it’s depicted online. To truly enjoy books at your own pace and to discover what types of stories speak to you, whether they’re on a BookTok table or not. And, if you do have a huge appetite for books, consider making use of your local library.

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