After racing to finish the final sentence, book still in hand, I reach for my phone and log into the Goodreads app. Scanning past the updates of the readers I follow, I enjoy the small dopamine-hit that follows tallying my latest read onto my challenge set for 2021. Feeling smug that I have already completed 70%, well ahead of schedule, it then begs the question, who is it all for?
Reading is often advocated as an antidote to the internet. An activity to enjoy away from our ever-present screens and the endless scroll. So, it may appear counterintuitive that the social media has become a place where people gather to share their love of books. Whether on specific apps such as Goodreads, which boasts over 90 million users, or across bookstagram and booktube, book-related content is in high demand. From curated shelvies, to extensive TBRs, social media has introduced a competitive aspect to reading. Videos on how to read 100+ books in a year have gained over a million views, sharing tips on how to improve your reading habits and bump up your average. But does introducing social media as a third party change the relationship between you and reading? And when reading is done with an audience in mind, does it lose its value?
Joel, a 21-year-old student, started his YouTube channel in June 2020, encouraged by friends and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to use his voice within the book community. He gained 30,000 subscribers within the first three months. Since then, his subscriber count has doubled to over 60,000, with his video content covering translated fiction, works by Black authors and his opinion on books recommended by celebrities. “I love it when people comment on a video or respond to one of my Instagram stories or tweets. It definitely makes me feel like that I’m not alone in reading,” he says.
Yet, what may be perceived as a wholesome corner of the internet can also have its flaws. Pointing to toxic reading habits within the online book community, Joel explains: “More often than not it’s people feeling bad that they haven’t read more than five books in a month, and sometimes I just want to shake them. It doesn’t matter how much you read, as long as you’re enjoying what you are reading.”
The term vanity metrics comes to mind: statistics that look good on the surface but don’t translate to any meaningful understanding of your performance. Documenting your reading habits online to some may seem like simply showing off, with endless hauls and unrealistic reading wrap ups saturating the community, as social media pushes even the most mellow of activities to the extreme.
As psychotherapist Lindsay George notes: “With any sort of activity, there is an emphasis on always trying to improve and trying to do more of those things that serve us well. But then there is this element of other people viewing those things and having an opinion about them, which then creates an internal stress. This creates a spiral of competitiveness in relation to our wellbeing.”
Deontaye, 20, another member of the booktube community with her channel Heroine's Corner, explains: “Booktube isn't different from other social media spaces. It can very much be a fake reality. You will see people reading 150 books, but then talk to the average person and they might read one book every three months. You are surrounded by people whose primary objective is to read books and so it can distort reality and makes you feel like you are not a valid reader.”
As with anything on the internet, the popularity of certain content also reflects the cultural moment. Reading lists on subjects such as feminism and anti-racism have proliferated in recent years, with books on race and discrimination becoming overnight bestsellers in 2020 after a summer of international protests against police brutality and racism. When it becomes more of a question of what you have read, than what you have done, the problem is clear.
“Knowledge and understanding these different concepts is helpful,” Deontaye acknowledges. “But when it comes to the larger issues it’s not going to be cured by reading five books on anti-racism. It's going to be solved by people actively trying to dismantle certain systems of inequality.”
But while the performative aspect has its problems, it is the community side of social media that encourages Deontaye to keep posting. “Reading can be a very solitary hobby. I feel like posting on YouTube can really help make you feel not so alone. It can be a collaborative and social hobby as well.”
When it comes to documenting our hobbies on social media, George explains: “It's difficult not to compare ourselves to other people but it is important to recognise when that becomes unhealthy” and take a step back. Reading is something to be enjoyed, an escape from reality and a chance to log off and de stress. “Often we need to turn the volume down on what is happening around us. Work out whether you are attending to your own emotional needs, or to other people's expectations of you," she adds. Sometimes when it all seems a bit much, there’s still nothing better than putting your phone down and picking up a book.
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