On Being A Reader: Before And After Social Media
There are many types of readers, and several ways of being one, but if you conciliate your love for books with a sharp presence on social media, it is almost impossible not to compare your life as a reader to that of others.
Between book challenges, bookish podcasts, and whatnot, I very often feel the dread that comes with knowing there is so much I am missing out on.
As fellow Rioter Rebecca expresses so well, most of us book lovers are living our bookish lives as if we were, indeed, immortal. And that’s okay.
I know very few bookish people whose TBR isn’t influenced by the endless recommendations given for free by Bookstagrammers, BookTubers, and Book Twitter, as well as websites like Book Riot itself.
I, too, am one of those people – both recommending and reviewing and adding one more book (let’s be honest and make that ten) to my TBR every other week. At the beginning of each year, I tend to promise myself that I will only read backlist titles, but I always end up wanting that book that’s just about to come out, because everyone is hyping it up. Luckily – or not – my egalley TBR is completely digital, and what the eyes do not see, the heart does not feel. I’m glad that at least the books on my ereader, because they don’t take a lot of physical space within my house, aren’t causing me extra anxiety.
I became a reader when I was about nine years old. I’ve told this story here before: I stumbled upon an adventure book at a cousin’s house (the book was part of a very famous Portuguese collection, similar to The Famous Five), and I loved it so much that I had no trouble taking over that book, and claiming it as my own (I stole it). I still own that copy to this day, and I was lucky enough to move into a new school with its own library shortly after finding that book: the library had the rest of the collection, and I haven’t stopped reading since.
Because I pretty much grew up without internet – I was 18 when I got my first laptop, and regular access to the internet came only when I moved out of my parents’ house at 24 – I also grew up talking to very few people about books. I had a couple of friends who liked to read, but I was usually the bookworm of the group. So my book perusing was very simple, and very straightforward: I would go to the library, see what was available, and pick up what struck me as fun, or interesting. Sometimes I’d stumble upon a known name, and I would give it a try. Most often, I’d just read a few blurbs and go with my mood and my gut feeling.
Those were some of the best years I had as a reader: I was finding things on my own, recommending them to other people, and feeling I knew quite a lot about books, since I was the one providing book recommendations and introducing new authors to others. In those years, I found Agatha Christie, Nick Hornby, Michael Ondaatje, Calvin & Hobbes, and a lot of adult romance. Because I didn’t have internet access, there was no comparing my reading choices to those of others, and since I didn’t spend time online, I spent it mostly reading. I didn’t have a TBR: I would check out a few books at a time from the library, and then check out a couple more once I was done with those.
Even when I finally started to have regular access to the internet back in 2011, for some reason I didn’t immediately immerse myself in the book world, preferring to spend my time writing fan fiction about my favourite TV show and scrolling through Tumblr. I did get an ereader in 2012, but I was still the reader I had always been: one that went with the flow.
Of course, as good as this felt at the time, it wasn’t until I started writing for Book Riot in 2017, that I realised how white and male my bookcase – and library book log – were. I thought I was in control of all the decisions I made on what to read, but it turns out that unless you make an effort to actively choose what you are reading, those choices are going to be made for you one way or another.
When I started considering the ways I used to read before being active in the online book community, and the ways I do now, and how my bookcase in 2021 differs from my bookcase back in 2017, I sometimes tend to miss how casual and relaxed my life as a reader used to be. On the other hand, I have chosen to continue to consume books this way; I have a choice of signing off at any given moment, and carry on unaware of what is happening within the online book community, but if I am honest with myself, I don’t want to. Because I know that what I have gained with it is more than what I have lost. It is worth dealing with the FOMO and to be haunted by the size of my TBR to be able to discover more diverse voices, to be able to comprehend others in ways I would have not been able to comprehend otherwise. To read about the lives of marginalised people, to get to know their stories and to educate myself, especially when my circle of friends is still very much white, like me. My bookshelf and I have gained so, so much from this knowledge, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and with great knowledge comes the discomfort of having to question authors I used to love and worship without a second thought. I now pick up problematic things in books a lot faster, and I question those things a lot more. And when I don’t pick them up, I am lucky to follow people who do and educate others on why those things are problematic and need to change.
In the end, I still prefer this questioning and critical way of reading books, doing my part to, through reading and reviewing and recommending, try to make this world – bookish and otherwise – more tolerant, accepting, and inclusive.
They’re just books, sure. But they don’t have to be just books. It’s our responsibility to learn the impact books truly have, to continue to read diversely, and to keep our minds open to learning and improving the ways we consume literature. It may sound counterproductive when we are talking about a hobby, but I can assure you that reading diversely and being aware of what you add to your bookshelf gives a lot more than it takes away.
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