I don’t think I’m too far off in assuming that readers who spend most of their reading life offline have it better off than those of us with a heavy social media presence. And note: this comes from someone who finds immense joy in sharing her reading with an online community, and with the internet at large, despite its trolls and not-so-nice users.
In fact, if you ask me if I’d like to go back to my 2015 self, where reading was done in solitude and seldom shared with people I knew in real life, my answer would be no. I still think I personally gain a lot more by being a reader who is online all the time, than when I blissfully consumed this media without influence from the online world.
For one, I lacked — and missed — an outlet to relay my passion, and I wasn’t exactly using books as a tool to improve myself as a person, which I now try to do more and more. Books are such useful tools for learning and connecting, and they can also be powerful weapons against bigotry.
I’ve seen wonderful things directly related to books happen, mostly because I was online and a part of a bookish community. But, even when you are part of a small bubble of people who align with your views, it isn’t always easy to stay away from the negativity. BookTok has had an amazing impact on the book world in the last few years, creating bestsellers left and right; but, like many platforms, it hasn’t come without cons. In my experience, it is much easier to stay away from bookish negativity on Bookstagram than it is on BookTok, or BookTwitter.
Instagram does show you accounts you don’t follow once in a while, and followers’ stories will showcase posts from accounts you have no interest in, which will inevitably keep you aware of some issues happening within the literary community, but I feel that in general — due to the aesthetically-driven nature of the platform (which directs you much more to see the images than to reading the texts) — posts are often more about books themselves than just random vitriol. And, let’s be real, I don’t always read the captions, I’ll be often times scrolling and liking posts because the photos look pretty.
BookTok and Twitter, on the other hand, rely on video/audio and the written word, people care less about keeping aesthetic timelines, so there’s more space for personal opinions to be thrown straight into your FYP in a manner that’s hard to ignore, from creators you don’t even follow, or care to.
As it happens with spaces that are filled with all kinds of people — be their online or not — there are a lot of hurtful takes out there. It pains me to see people’s own preferences or dislikes being used as a stone to throw at others, when we’re all doing the same thing: reading as a hobby.
Reading Challenges Results: An End-of-the-Year Calamity
Come the end of the year, most book lovers have one thing in common to share: a list of books read that year. Some take notes on Goodreads or StoryGraph, some even have their own personal book log — like the Book Riot reading log.
As the final results of the reading challenges are shared, the negative responses don’t take long to make an appearance.
You would expect that, in a community focused on reading as much as possible in a lifetime, readers who read less would take the unfair brunt of it and be put under scrutiny, but quite the opposite happens; those who read a couple of books a year are usually reassured by the community: it does not matter how much you read just as long as you keep reading. Now, find me someone who has read more than 100 books a year, and you’ll find the weirdest takes thrown at them, especially if that number gets higher than 150/200.
Without exception, there are people in the comments questioning those high book counts: how legit are those numbers? How long were the books? What types of books were they reading? Were there audiobooks in the mix and should those really count as reading? And inevitably: what is the point and the pleasure in reading so much?
Year after year after year, readers keep policing the habits of other readers. Often, those judging will also try to wash their hands from the judgment: “You can read whatever you want, but…” Not judging leaves no space for buts.
To Tab Or Not To Tab
More recently I came across another take on BookTok that threw me off, especially because it could have sprouted from a place of curiosity, but both from the tone of the video and the comments, it was clear it came from a place of mockery.
The video started by stitching a creator who uses tabs to mark their books; you probably have seen it before: the edges decorated with several coloured tabs.
Aside from the fact that I do find these quite pretty to look at, and that I sometimes do tab my books, there is usually a goal to tabbing. Most readers will even attribute different colours to different themes in the book (quotes, passages, important plot points) so that they can easily find a passage they want to recall, or a beautiful quote, or information they want to research more deeply.
The question in the video was “Why do people use the tabs?” Simple, yes. The tone and consecutive comments leaned more towards “Why the hell would someone do this???! This is beyond my comprehension” with a hint of “What a bunch of nonsense.”
And it got me to wonder: why is it that the individual choices of others and how they decide to consume literature piss some people off so much?
Of course, even here at Book Riot we joke about finding it a monstrosity to break book spines, or dog-earing as bookmarking, but in all sincerity the great majority of us couldn’t care less about the ways others decide to treat their books, even if it goes against how we would personally treat our own. We actually laugh at the belief that reading is the be all end all of hobbies, or that readers are in some way better people.
And it is rather disheartening to see that there is very little readers can do without being judged, even when it’s something so simple as tabbing their own freaking books.
I wish that readers, as a community and as individuals, were more focused on engaging with the things we truly appreciate, and less keen on judging the ways others are occupying themselves with the hobby. This is not to say there isn’t valid criticism in the book community, because there is. But that criticism is perhaps best directed away from choices that affect one individual alone and aren’t actively harmful.
I wish the rhetoric of what counts as reading, or how much value you’re really taking from books when you read 300 in a year, would dissipate, that we could stop questioning why people are tabbing books or doing whatever they are doing to their personal library. These questions do not come with a true interest in learning, but in criticizing for the sake of criticizing, sometimes with a strange feeling of superiority. Policing reading and readers as if there are a set of rules to follow, and ways they can fail at it.
So I guess this is what I am trying to do here: wishing — and advising, if I dare — that we all just read and let read.
And What About Valid Criticism?
Of course, all of the above is not to say that the criticism of the literary scene is always invalid. As I mentioned, there is still a lot that can change in the community for the better, and we can only achieve that by listening to the worries and propositions coming from those (validly) pointing out how certain issues aren’t being addressed.
My online presence has completely changed my reading habits, allowing me to become more aware of the systems of power that still rule our society; for a long time I read what was put in my hands. These were choices I made but, in many ways, were made for me since I picked up what was in sight, what was popular, and well-known. This meant my library was not diverse: I was reading for the pleasure of reading without realizing I was also contributing to a lot of the disparities we find in publishing. Reading can absolutely be a political act.
When the criticism comes from a standpoint of “we need to change this because it is harmful” we should be all ears, open to learning and doing better. We need to engage in the conversations regarding who gets to be published, who gets to represent which groups, who we — as readers — should support, and I feel it is important to reiterate that in this post.
That doesn’t change the fact that there is sometimes a wish from members of the community to invalidate certain reading choices without caring about any of the actual problems within the publishing industry, or within online bookish communities. There is still a lot of hate thrown at people in the bookish world for doing harmless things that bring them joy and, ultimately, have no influence whatsoever on others. And to that I say: read and let read.