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Is BookTok sucking the joy out of reading?

Instead of encouraging people to read what they want, when they want, BookTok is increasingly pressuring users to treat reading like a competitive sport

TikTok has a sub-community for everything. There’s ChefTok, MovieTok, CraftTok, DIYTok – the list goes on. Undoubtedly the biggest community on the app is BookTok, where bookworms flock to share their favourite reads and joke about their ever-growing ‘to be read’ piles. But what started as a wholesome community has quickly snowballed into a hotbed of competitiveness, where readers feel pressured into religiously monitoring how many books they’ve read in a month and encouraged to splurge on extravagant hardback hauls.

The BookTok hashtag boasts over 175 billion views on TikTok, and has become the go-to congregation for bibliophiles in recent years. It has revolutionised the publishing industry, given the UK record-breaking physical book sales in 2022, and opened countless doors for authors and creators. Many bestselling books in recent years have BookTok to thank for their immense success, such as Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles or Rebecca Yarros’ The Fourth Wing. Famously, author Alex Aster landed a six-figure book deal after a video of the logline of her widely rejected young adult novel Lightlark went viral. After its release in 2022, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for an entire year. R F Kuang put it well in her best-selling novel Yellowface: social media “is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists”.

Reading has always been regarded as a more ‘high brow’ hobby, as if you appear to read a lot of books, there’s an assumption you’re more knowledgeable, articulate and worldly. Think back to lockdown and how we over-analysed strangers’ bookshelves on Zoom for a peek at how they wished to be perceived. This desire to be seen as someone who reads (and reads ‘well’) permeates BookTok, where creators regularly share how many books they’ve read that week, month or year (for example, Jack Ben Edwards, the internet’s ‘resident librarian’ read 182 books in 2022 according to his Goodreads, totalling and a hefty 47,061 pages). As writer and former BookTuber Barry Pierce described it in GQ, he found the community to be “like entering a parallel universe where reading wasn’t just something that someone did for fun, it was a lifestyle, an aesthetic, people were ‘readers’ like Lorraine Kelly is Lorraine Kelly.” 

Evidently, beneath the whimsical and charming Pinterest-ready exterior of steaming cups of tea, fresh books and thick blankets, there is an uglier underbelly to BookTok, where slower readers are judged for the amount of books and the genres of fiction that they consume.

23-year-old creator Nicole went viral earlier this year for her videos defending slow readers, and reiterating that “reading is not a competitive sport… even though this silly little app makes us think it is”. In another video, she adds: “I’ve always felt like I couldn’t make bookish videos as I read too slow, and I felt like I couldn’t love reading as much as I thought I did because I was a slow reader.”

Nicole says she’s been criticised for not bingeing series such as Sarah J Maas’ popular eight-book debut, Throne of Glass, as it would take her months to get through, and she’d rather invest the time in standalone novels. “I think that as readers, it can be intimidating to join BookTok because there’s such an emphasis on the amount of books you read, own and buy,” she tells Dazed. “The lifestyle of reading hundreds of books a year and buying 50 books a month is unattainable for the average person.”

Plenty of other creators agree, there’s even satire around this toxic trend. In one video, creator Nat Eliason holds up Ulysses as he jokes: “Why would you waste time on this when it only counts as one book?”. In a separate video, Bushra points out how ridiculous it is that on BookTok reading one book a month gets you labelled as “not a real reader”. 

Even for those who do manage to read upwards of 50 titles a year, the experience hardly seems enjoyable. “I can finish one to two books a day, or maybe even three depending on my mood,” one avid reader confesses in a video about how to read faster. She has posted a lot of ‘tips’ for reading faster, such as to stop subvocalising (reading the book in your head), skim read, chunk words together, and use your finger to trace the line of text. Similarly, another video posted by Alex & Books shows you how to read a book in a week, by dividing the total page number by seven in order to block out your page count for each day. Another reader suggests that you should “stop buying books that are too hard for you” and choose “easier, quicker stories” – suggesting it’s quantity, not quality, which reigns supreme on BookTok.  

Despite the well-intentioned trend and the benefits of setting reading targets, the pressure to binge a stack of books can create a toxic, stressful environment for some users. It also leans into the hyper-consumerism ingrained in the culture of BookTok, where being a reader involves splurging on tons of books new gadgets like Kindle clickers, bigger bookshelves, and hardback limited editions to be viewed as a true member of the community. But the pleasure of reading not only comes from whizzing through a fast-paced section that leaves you unaware of your surroundings, but also being all-consumed in a fictional world, taking time to take in each page. And yet the joy of spending weeks immersed in one book is becoming less of a priority for bookworms on BookTok, as people rush to read as many books as possible to keep up with everyone else’s quota. 

Many BookTokers not only judge the number of books you read, but also the kind of genres you binge. Sera Read That notes this common occurrence in one video: “the amount of times I’ve seen people bullied off this app for their personal opinions, that aren’t detrimental to anyone really, that people don’t agree with, is insane.” 

BookTok is home to various cult fandoms such as the lovers of fae smut, Colleen Hoover, Tessa Bailey or cartoon cover romcoms – the kind of titles you’d see bundled together on colourful, dedicated ‘BookTok’ stands in Waterstones. However, if you don’t like the popular book of the month or slander a fan-favourite author, you run the risk of being trolled. “Your integrity as a reader is challenged. People voice those little fears you had about not being a good enough reader and it’s ridiculous,” Nicole explains. It starts to reinforce a dogmatic idea that specific genres or authors are valued more highly than others, and any opinions to the contrary are simply wrong.

Ultimately, hobbies are the one area of our lives that don’t need to be quantified or capitalised. They’re an outlet to express ourselves, relax, and fill our free time. You’re a reader if you read one book a month or six books a year. You’re a reader if you only read romantic comedies or science-fiction novels. BookTok is at its best when it remembers this, and celebrates the value we find as individuals in words, stories and characters. 

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