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In 2019, a mystified X user discovered the existence of book lovers. “they stan books 💀,” wrote the user. “WTFGDSJSJSJ i mean do they binge read books??? are they going to meet the authors?” responded another equally perplexed user.
This now-legendary exchange is a perfect example of certain contemporary ideas about reading, ie. that it’s uncool or not worth doing. (The aforementioned users both seemed to stan the Chrises instead.) America is a famously anti-intellectual place, and studies show that reading is on the decline.
And yet, an online phenomenon that promotes reading has swept the nation—and the world—as of late. BookTok is the name of a community on TikTok wherein creators post videos about their favorite books, connecting with other users who share their love of reading.
To some, like those X users, book fandom is a peculiar concept. In actuality, it is not new at all. Sherlock Holmes readers were some of the earliest modern fans, and they pioneered fan practices well-known today. Some of the first fan conventions centered on science fiction books, and we can’t forget the fervor that surrounded series like Harry Potter and Twilight.
What’s most interesting about BookTok, however, is that these are not fans of specific books or authors, but of reading in general. There are some names that pop up a lot on BookTok—Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Madeline Miller—but in theory, anything goes. The community is primarily made up of young women, which may account for some of the dismissiveness sent their way.
The way these BookTokers engage with and create content about books is unique. Unlike literary critics, these fans engage with books primarily on an emotional, subjective level. Many BookTok videos depict fans reading books and then having some sort of outsized reaction—crying, screaming, throwing the book across the room. One BookToker went viral for her teary reactions to A Little Life, another wailed when she finished The Song of Achilles.
While some of these TikTokers do classic book reviews or book hauls, the emphasis is more on the feeling of the books—or the vibes, if you will—than the plot. The experience of reading is of the utmost importance on BookTok, where digging into a good book is portrayed as a wholly immersive practice.
The fact that books—which don’t contain visual elements, for the most part—have become such a popular form of media on a video platform like TikTok is intriguing. It’s difficult to make a sexy fancam about a book like you can about a movie or an actor, but it’s not impossible. BookTokers have found a way to make reading seem romantic and sensual. Take this TikTok, also about The Song of Achilles, which features soft music, a soothing voice over, and the book in question surrounded by candles and blankets. These videos depict reading as an aesthetic experience, not just an intellectual one.
BookTok is also good PR for books, and has without a doubt had an effect on the publishing industry. According to NPD BookScan, BookTok helped sell 20 million books in 2021. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider the book-to-film-adaptation pipeline, which has made publishing more profitable than ever. Through their spirited musings about reading, these book fans have become cultural tastemakers.
Why it matters
Media gatekeepers have always disparaged young women fans, from the era of Beatlemania to One Direction and Twilight. Though there are valid critiques about which books these fans tend to endorse—Colleen Hoover is one of the most controversial contemporary authors—there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Instead, we might think of BookTok as an affirming space for bibliophiles to creatively narrate their passions, turning reading into a cultural phenomenon with its own set of rituals and customs.