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Bookish Platforms: how Bookstagram and BookTok have affected our reading habits

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

There’s no doubt about it: Bookstagram and BookTok have taken the bookish community by storm. Books are recommended, linked, displayed and circulated through the magic of algorithms and the joy of online connectivity.

Cover image: a woman holds a book up to her face in frustration while standing against a brick wall, in 2019. Image: Siora Photography on Unsplash. Used with a CC BY 2.0 licence.

But what are the tangible effects of these platform affordances? How has this unrelenting interconnectedness affected our love of reading?

Solitary to Social

Historically, reading has often been a relatively solitary activity. Romantic writers turned to notions of beauty, art, emotion and the sublime to inspire their works. According to an article by Artsy, the period ‘exalted individuals and their strong emotions’. In the iconic painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, a man is centred on the canvas, gazing out at the swirling patterns of nature that becomes his, alone, to divulge.

A man stands above a landscape filled with fog as an allegory for the lofty ideals of the author in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, painted by Caspar David Friedrich. Image: Alte Nationalgalerie and Elke Walford. Used with a CC BY 2.0 licence.

The ideal author looked upon his (yes, his) readers from on high, a single source of wisdom and romanticised intelligence. The profile of his reader was a white, upper-class man – sat in a suit in an armchair before a fire, legs crossed, cigar lit, thinking cap on.

But reading, like so much else in our modern world, has changed. It’s now a group activity, welcoming all kinds of readers from all kinds of backgrounds. The social media landscape has allowed readers of like minds and similar interests to find each other, connect, meet and chat about all things bookish.

No longer is reading for specific audiences at the exclusion of everyone else. The dynamic shift to online platforms has allowed for everyone to meet and be equal in readership.

‘On the Grid’ Syndrome

There are downsides, however: everything we read is considered in terms of Insta-worthy potential.

This shifts our perspective a little as readers. According to The Courier, Bookstagram and BookTok ‘results in a pressure to read the popular books, perhaps not allowing us to discover authentically the types of books we individually like.’ Instead of choosing to read for our own private enjoyment, we are projecting and performing that enjoyment.

We are perpetually over-sharing our reading opinions and habits, carving a place for ourselves on the grid.

Quite often, I find myself attracted to book covers and the aesthetic of book designs. These days, I ask questions before I start reading, like ‘Is this book going to be interesting for my followers?’ Very quickly, the simple of joy of reading starts to fade as books become grid fodder.

Productivity Guilt & Identity

As a new generation of creatives with an active presence online, readers often feel pressured: we have to finish a book we’re not enjoying, simply because of our reading goals; we read ‘serious’ fiction to uphold a scholarly, educated version of ourselves; and we stick our noses up at books that we would actually enjoy, in an effort to align with public opinion.

Sorelle Amore speaks to hustle culture and the detrimental effects of productivity guilt, in 2021. Video: ‘How toxic culture is slowly KILLING you’, from Sorelle Amore Finance on YouTube.Used with a CC BY 2.0 licence.

There’s a danger of falling into the trap of always being productive, even in our reading habits. If we read a romance, it defines us as a particular type of reader – instead of a person who simply enjoys a good story.

As I was studying my undergraduate in literary studies, I found myself bogged down in at least one classic book a week. Reading became something that I had to do, an activity that would teach me something, allow me to say ‘yes, I’ve read that’ with my glasses perched precariously on the edge of my nose.

I lost the joy.

The Process of Reading

To keep a habit, we have to actually enjoy the process of doing it. In his bestselling book, Atomic Habits, James Clear writes: ‘Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress’.

If I stop enjoying the words on the page – the process, or system – then I’ll be less likely to pick up a book the next time I have a spare hour.

To learn to enjoy reading again, I had to switch off my Bookstagram. I had to realign my values, work out what I actually liked to read, not what the algorithms and popular opinion were telling me to like.

I picked up some YA books that I used to love and re-read them. I had to reconnect with my favourites, but I slowly learned to love reading again.

Social Media & Reading

Bookstagram and BookTok have irrevocably changed the way we read. There’s no denying the beautiful connectivity and inspiring social change that’s occurring through our use of these platforms.

But there are also dangers here. It’s all too easy to lose our way, to become obsessive about follower numbers or grid aesthetics.

Learning to love the single sentences, the stories and the genres mechanics is a sure-fire way to reignite our enjoyment of reading – and that, after all, is what books are about.

As always, thanks a bunch for reading with me, Maddy x


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