Reading Goals: Keeping Up With The Cultural Zeitgeist

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Millions of us have embraced reading as a way to cope in These Unprecedented Times. But with reading piles acquiring social media clout (all the books I read this year!), for some (writers and journalists in particular), reading has become an act of performance, an endless routine in ‘brand maintenance.’ We’ve been instilled with the idea that reading is meant to be fun, and it is for most people. For others, though, the sight of a stack of unread books can strike a guilty cord, reminding us of all we were supposed to learn and never did. *Sigh.*

The end of the year inevitably brings with it an uptick in competitiveness around reading and productivity on social media. Journalists do a roundup of the articles they had published, artists and the like make a list of the projects they were (quite rightly) proud to have been involved with. And the bookworms? They read more than a 100 books last year (apparently)! And how did they achieve such an impressive feat? I’m thinking book-summarising services? Speedreading? Or perhaps the complete lack of any social life whatsoever (granted, we are in the midst of a pandemic)? So. I wondered – are people really reading as many books as they claim? And why are they bragging about it online?

Now for the facts. According to a Pew Research Center study from 2015, the average American reads 12 books per year – a number inflated by serious bookworms (the most commonly reported number was four). In Britain (more relevant for us), a 2019 study by Kantar Insights found that, while 51% of UK adults had read a book in the past year, only 34% of readers managed ten or more. So, if you read more than ten books last year, well done to you. These figures should be taken with a grain of salt, though. And by this I mean, did you really ‘read’ that book you only got half-way through and then tossed in the cupboard, long-forgotten and now gathering dust? I’ll leave that to you to decide. You know best.

Whether people lie about the number of books they read, the competitiveness I’ve seen online leaves me feeling uncomfortable (and quite frankly a little bit intimidated), and it appears I’m not alone.

As we’re spending more time at home, the pressure to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist can send one into a bit of a frenzy. The towers of unread books on my bookshelf taunt me, as do the stacks of magazines that accumulate on my nightstand. Then there are all of the unread tabs, long reads, and articles looming on my laptop. But do we really have time to sit and consider what we’ve learned if we’re consuming book after book after book or article after article after… (you get the drift)? Quality over quantity and all that. Some people are quick to admit that despite being compulsive readers, they read very poorly. Writer Megan Nolan says in The Guardian that sometimes she reads “dozens of thrillers” in one week but “[could not tell] you much about them the following morning.” Perhaps it’s not always the case that the more books you read, the more literary you are. (I say this mostly to console myself).

Nowhere is this trend more evident than on social media, where on Instagram, you might post a picture of the trendy book you’re reading, except you haven’t read it and have no intention of doing so. Let’s be clear: it just makes you look good. Then there are those who attend book clubs merely for the social element and the nous it bestows upon them –  “I’m attending book club, darling” – without ever opening the cover of the book chosen for that week. Liars. Posers. Imposters, all of them.

Cynicism aside, if you’re a writer or journalist, what you read can become part of your online presence, yet another aspect of ‘brand maintenance.’ Do we pick books based on what will make us look smarter and more culturally clued in on the internet? According to a Sky Arts poll, more than half of the 2,000 people surveyed admitted to pretending to have read a book cover to cover because they thought it would make them appear more cultured or high-brow, so it certainly seems possible.

Journalist Rhys, 24, knows what I’m talking about. He has been documenting his reading on social media since the start of the year. He includes short, insightful books reviews alongside his Instagram stories. Part of this performance is ‘brand maintenance.’ Part of it is wanting to read more books, he tells me, over the phone one evening in January.

“I’m treading a bit of a contradiction. I’m cautious of sharing triumphs on social media as that can be damaging for people’s motivation and self-esteem, especially as younger journalists are watching what I do,” he tells me.

But as someone who is trying to court the attention of literary agents, he must have evidence that he’s engaging with literature and books: “I was assessing what I wanted to do in 2021 and where I needed to shift my focus as a writer. I thought about the fact that I needed to build up a kind of authority within books and have a bit more of a literary edge to what I was doing,” he says.

As for reading challenges, he thinks they’re a “purely egotistical thing” and has “a lower threshold than most for people bragging online.”

But there are positives too. Being part of a reading community can be beneficial for your mental health. Posting about what we read, like many other things, can fulfill a basic human impulse to feel like what we think and do (and read) matters. A case in point is Maria, 28, who started an online book club with two work friends during the pandemic. The book club has an Instagram page through which she and her two colleagues share mostly positive reviews. She enjoys it as it allows her to express her viewpoints and connect with friends and readers alike (much more important now, for obvious reasons).

“People you don’t normally interact with day-to-day will just message you or react to your story out of the blue, and it’s just nice – they’ll initiate a conversation about the book,” Maria tells me over Zoom.

“Occasionally, you end up reconnecting with someone you haven’t spoken to in months or years. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Maria does the Goodreads Challenge, and although competitive, she’s trying not to pressure herself. Most importantly, she says she wouldn’t share the number of books she’s read on social media: “It’s just not something I’d do.”

As a book club with a small following, the books they choose to read aren’t much of a concern. “But if we gain more of an audience, we’ll have to be more discerning and maybe pick what’s trending or popular,” Maria says.

The pressure to post about specific books is undoubtedly there for some. As one ‘bookstagrammer’ told Bustle: “Sometimes it’s hard to resist the hype machine. A book will suddenly be EVERYWHERE, and it can be so tempting to read it, even if you know it isn’t necessarily a good fit for you, just to be part of the larger conversation happening in the community around that book.”

I don’t know about you, but perhaps it’s time we all cut ourselves some slack. Take a deep breath. This will all be over very soon. And the number of books you read (or didn’t) last year isn’t a sign of your superior/inferior cognitive abilities. I, for one, will be ditching my reading goals and reading entirely for pleasure this year – whatever tickles my fancy, reconnecting with the act of reading a book cover to cover. Hopefully, it will be an antidote to the mindless doomscrolling that has characterised much of my pandemic experience so far. As for ‘brand maintenance’? Well, perhaps it might get me some Instagram likes.

Words by Camilla Patini

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