When Did Reading Books Become So Competitive?

Illustrated by Lily Fulop.
As I emerged from a post-NYE three-day hangover which involved mainly long naps and finishing the last of the Christmas stilton, it seemed in my corner of the internet that everyone else had made a far more productive start to the decade. On Instagram, people had begun documenting their annual reading challenges and many were off to a flying start. By the time February rolled around, some had ploughed through an impressive number of books – "2/30", "4/50" and "6/100" the counts declared.

I definitely feel that pressure, like I'm not keeping up if I haven't read them all.

The cold and windy months are naturally a time for hunkering down and hiding away but the trend for devouring books (and telling everyone about it) is not reserved for the new year, with its new beginnings and hefty ambitions. In the age of sharing via social media, the private act of reading has become public and performative. Books are cultural currency and a fundamental way to build your personal brand, whether you have 100 followers or one million. Much like a designer bag or a velvet sofa, a voracious reading habit has become highly coveted as we try to one-up each other in the game called: presenting our very best selves online. 
Kate Johnson, senior consumer lifestyle editor at trend forecasting agency Stylus, believes that books – one of the oldest forms of entertainment – have gained such clout on social media because they provide relief from the fast pace of life driven by the online world itself. "The opportunity to slow down long enough to absorb a story is a luxury, a marker of cultural affluence," she explained. Books are the antithesis to social media’s "fleeting, frivolous and fragmented mode of content consumption" as we see a move away from the glorification of the always-on and the cult of busy. "Mindful pastimes that boost calm and respite are those set to command a real premium," she added.
Much like any break from technology (see also: the digital detox), documenting it is all part of the process. "Paradoxically, people still crave the social kudos that comes with engaging online to showcase their 'shelfie' or discover the next must-read," Johnson observed. And in a time where traditional markers of success – buying a house, starting a family – are harder to achieve, maybe a well-stocked bookshelf or curated coffee table is a new symbol of adulthood. 
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love reading and I can fully get behind John Waters’ sentiment – "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!" – provided said books aren’t turned the wrong way around as a minimal design statement. I enjoy getting reading recommendations from people I follow on Instagram but the competitive nature of it all can cause a serious case of comparisonitis. I’m not the only one to have felt this pressure upon seeing posts of stacks of finished books. "Our leisure time is such a competitive sport these days – all the prestigious prize book lists and the Netflix must-watches and the hot new box sets everyone’s talking about, not to mention all the top movies. I definitely feel that pressure, like I’m not keeping up if I haven’t read or watched it all!" one woman told me via Facebook. To borrow from Soraya Roberts' 2019 essay, When Did Pop Culture Become Homework?: "When art is a should or a must or a have to, when we turn it into a chore, it is the opposite of what art is supposed to be."

I felt like I wasn't enjoying my book because I was constantly planning what I had to say, judging myself on how long it was taking me to read it and how many books I'd read throughout the year.

This trend for optimising every area of our lives – transforming our hobbies into side projects – can zap the joy out of cosying up with a good book. Another woman told me that documenting the books she read in 2019 via Instagram stories quickly became tiresome. "By the end of the year I felt like I wasn’t enjoying my book because I was constantly planning what I had to say, judging myself on how long it was taking me to read it and how many books I’d read throughout the year."
The competitive nature of reading challenges is one thing but there’s also a level of snobbery about certain books, which further piles on the guilt. Whether it’s a 'must-read' classic or this year’s hot [insert prestigious book prize] title, some books carry more cultural gravitas than others. Caroline O'Donoghue, author and host of chick lit podcast Sentimental Garbage, points out that it’s a "dangerous myth" to assume these are the only books worth reading. Often serious or 'difficult' to read, so-called literary fiction can put some readers off for good. "People go on to think of reading as a chore, as another thing they're 'not doing', rather than seeing it as the joyful and life-changing thing that it is," she explained. O'Donoghue's podcast celebrates and critiques women’s commercial fiction (a frequently dismissed category) in a new light. "A lot of women are realising that their reading tastes have been shaped and manipulated by quite misogynistic parameters of what's 'good'," she told me. 
Of course, the whole notion of 'good' is different for everyone. Whether you like chick lit, a pacy thriller, the latest award-winning novel or – shock horror – all three, it doesn’t really matter. There's a book out there for everyone – even if it takes you a year to finish it. 

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