How BookTok has rekindled college students’ love of reading

Sarah Clifton | @sarahgclifton, Contributing Writer

For students, the act of reading is one of three things: a necessary evil, a long-lost love or an enemy to be avoided at all costs. This is changing for many, in part thanks to one of TikTok’s latest trends, BookTok.

In 2020, BookTok, a nickname for the “side” of TikTok that is interested in reading and discussing books, became increasingly popular, with over 36 billion views. Users upload reviews of books, suggestions of books to read and discussions of popular books on the platform.

Many students recall the social media trend rekindling their love of reading.

“I got on BookTok by accident because I liked one video related to childhood books,” said Sierra Kerby, a sophomore majoring in social work. “Then I just kept getting videos, so I finally read one of the recommendations when I had COVID-19, and since then I’ve been obsessed. There’s so many books in my list to read that I got from BookTok.”

On BookTok, users can find a variety of books to satiate their imaginations. Fantasy and romance are two genres users are particularly interested in. 

A Court of Thorns and Roses,” by Sarah J. Maas, is a New York Times bestseller and arguably one of the most raved-about books on BookTok.

On one hand, the book has a reputation for being a fantasy “classic.”

“I am a sucker for a good romance,” Kerby said. “It has a lot of really good characters. It’s not like anything I’ve ever read.”

However, some readers feel that the book is lazily constructed.

“She only develops the setting of the book when it’s needed to understand the immediate plot,” said Alyssa Snyder, a junior majoring in psychology. “And it sets everything back because she has to backtrack before she can get to the actual plot.”

Other complaints about the novel address poor storytelling.

“Sarah J. Maas loves redemption arcs,” Snyder said. “Every character gets one, but there’s way too many characters to have redemption arcs for all of them.”

Either way, many readers agree that it’s a good entry point into the fantasy genre.

“Everyone talks about it, and it’s a book a lot of people consider one you have to say you’ve read,” Snyder said. “Even though I think there’s better ones out there, it’s a good segue into fantasy for people who have never read fantasy before.”

If fantasy, faeries and otherworldly courts aren’t your thing, BookTok has a wealth of other recommendations, including novels that are more historically focused with fantasy and supernatural elements.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue,” by V.E. Schwab, is a book about the titular Addie LaRue’s life after making a deal  to live forever and subsequently being cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Grace McMann, a junior majoring in English, said the book is one of the best because of its complex characters and the emotion it evokes.

“This book tears you apart, and by the end, I was full on sobbing, and I have never cried reading a book,” McMann said. “It was just that good. It was an experience.”

In a similar vein, “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller, is popular among BookTok readers and features romance and historical elements.

The book has mixed reviews online. Some, like Kerby, praise it for its “beautiful, descriptive writing,” but others think it is overhyped.

“Everyone on BookTok idolizes it and says it’s a new classic,” said Alden Wiygul, a junior majoring in psychology and criminal justice. “The author was trying so hard to be historically accurate that she didn’t go into enough depth about the characters and their relationships.”

As much as the platform has encouraged people to pick up reading as a hobby and reinvigorated those who were already readers, there is a dark side to this side of TikTok: the intense discussions and opinions.

“People will comment that they don’t like a particular book, and there’s always sub comments along the lines of, ‘How dare you?’” Wiygul said. “I feel like that’s the case with social media in general, because people can be awful, but it’s still there.”

Snyder said the discussion has been “very black and white,” especially with “A Court of Thorns and Roses.” 

“People either love it or hate it and have really strong opinions,” Snyder said. “[They] either focus on one bad thing in the series and don’t excuse anything, or they justify everything, even things that shouldn’t be justified, and it’s interesting because both sides have valid evidence.” 

Many users see this trend on the social media platform sticking around for the foreseeable future.

“It has its ups and downs in popularity,” McMann said. “But it has the power to influence people, especially younger readers who are looking up to what books and genres older people read. It reaches a vast expanse of people, and definitely is going to affect what people grow up reading.”

BookTok’s takeover has led to a reinvigorated love of reading and introduced new media for people to enjoy.

“I love when I can interact with a book,” Snyder said. “Doesn’t matter if I love it, if it makes me cry, if it makes me cringe. … If it makes me develop some kind of emotion, I think it’s done its job, and I’ve found a lot of that on BookTok.”

Questions? Email the Culture desk at culture@cw.ua.edu.