A classics student named Esme, who goes by the username @bookswithsmee online, devotes her social media channels both TikTok and Instagram to the lives of her books.1 While she makes reference to the piles of reading she's required to complete for school, her accounts document the fiction she reads for pleasure in the snatched moments between classes, the completion of assignments, and shifts at her part-time job. With eighty-four thousand followers and 2.7 million likes, her TikTok page features a series of episodes titled "Journey of a Book" (see fig. 1), showcasing the various travels her novels take as she reads them. Esme's consumption of stories is far from passive; through movement, she crafts a reciprocal and ever-evolving relationship with the book as an object. For example, in a more recent video, Esme and her sibling Al vacation to Rome with Sangu Mandanna's The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches (2022) in tow. Esme and Al's video footage features the book's once new and undisturbed pages becoming increasingly worn as the hard-cover book makes its way in and out and in and out again of Esme's forest-green backpack. Phone video footage captures the novel exploring the city alongside them: the book appears on the balcony of their hotel and then later on their bed surrounded by a handful of pastel-colored highlighters. Having removed the book's protective dust jacket, Esme writes her favorite quotations on the dark maroon cover in a white pen (a practice she extends to most of her hardcover reads). The book proceeds to join them as they read outside with birds, and then reappears on a 5 a.m. train to Venice. Over the course of each day, Esme and Al take in the book's stories while also leaving their marks on it: with journeys big and small, their hands cover the pages in marker and ink, flag margins with sticky tabs, and fold corners into dog ears.

A screenshot of a TikTok video where the foreground of the image contains a graphic that says
Fig. 1: @readbookswithsmee's Journey of a Book, Episode 2

As Esme and other book-focused accounts reveal, social media doesn't attend exclusively to university students' social life but harbors an academic (or quasi-academic) focus on material modes of reading that nevertheless bears its own social impetus. As an instructor of literature, I find myself lamenting the flashes of light from various screens that emerge during our class conversations, which distract from the work we do to understand literary texts. When the Instagram homepage rests beside a student's poem, the app clicked open out of habit, I worry over the lost attention span of our newest generation (and my own, shortly before it) whose brains more readily latch onto a thirty second reel than Audre Lorde's seven-stanza poem.2 But rather than dismiss the content of these ever-enticing devices, we might consider what new entry points social media devoted to books make available for the work of literary criticism.

The uptick in book-related social media content coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic's global lockdown. Many users turned to books as a way of encountering new people and spaces when they remained stuck at home. As one UK newspaper describes it, "BookTok is the fastest book club you will ever visit."3 As I am writing this essay, #BookTok has 188.2 billion views, and #Bookstagram another 96.3 million. Such channels are most often praised for their transformation of book sales. Where book recommendations would otherwise emerge in conversations with friends or reviews in publications like the New York Times or Vulture, the emergence of the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeReadIt has prompted the appearance of #BookTok tables at Barnes and Noble stores across the U.S.4 But the effect of book-related social media pertains not only to books' increasing commodification but the ways we read them. Far from implementing a stark divide between pleasure and academic-related reading, these channels change the ways that English majors (and non-majors) approach books. Young readers reframe texts as sites of not simply work, or an assignment, but pleasure, an experience they readily seek out for enjoyment. As Sarah Clifton, a contributing writer for the University of Alabama's student newspaper explains, while "the act of reading is ... a necessary evil, a long-lost love or an enemy to be avoided at all costs," "[m]any students recall the social media trend rekindling their love of reading."5

English professors might be inclined to roll their eyes at this renewed love of literature as a love that is uncritical, modeling a consumer-oriented approach to reading that endorses the book as a conduit for passive thought over active engagement.6 Devoid of rich representations, many of these TikTok-trending books remain untaught in classrooms; for example, two the most popular social media endorsed titles Colleen Hoover's It Ends With Us (2016) or Emily Henry's Beach Read (2020) do not routinely appear on course syllabi in English departments. But rather than turn away from social media's deployment of these widely circulated, contemporary books as uncritical, we might consider how they invite new approaches to reading  less in regard to content, although that is part of it, but also material forms. Such posts often ask us to reconceptualize books as physical objects ones that users like Esme annotate or that other posters organize, often according to color, on their bedroom shelves. As Lindsey Thomas explains, "These videos are a reminder that the physical book, specifically the trade paperback, is the preferred format for reading on BookTok. In video after video, creators caress their covers, flip through their pages, stack them on top of one another, and break their spines (or react in horror when other people break their spines)."7 One of the most common BookTok and Bookstagram video sequences features a stack of books with the spines resting in the palm of their reader's hand. Viewers are introduced to the book's pages before the influencer unveils their covers (often associated with a list of top reads or "holiday favorites"). Here, we bear witness to a book's materiality before its content.

Despite influencers' digital advertisements for favorite titles, sales of print books are on the rise, which suggests that the seemingly immaterial medium of social media prompts an unexpected return to screenless reading. In an interview for Business Insider, Barnes and Noble's director of books Shannon DeVito explains: "The advent of ebooks was harbored as the death of the written word, but it leveled out, print sales have been up," noting that TikTok ensures her confidence in an otherwise shaky industry's future.8 While some posts focus solely on the plot of latest releases, using a video format to produce an enticing book review or advertisement, a number of these widely circulating reels and images foreground what Alison Flood calls the "experience of reading," fashioning reading as an always already embodied practice.9

Many of Esme's videos start with an unveiling of the "book as purchased" from the bookstore with its pages flat and spine uncracked. But the act of reading involves an often messy reciprocity between her book and body. If the book's story transforms Esme's sense of self, this reading self transforms the book's material presentation. As @buzzingaboutbooks reveals, the young and invested reader "writ[es] in books," "crack[s] book spines," and "us[es] books as furniture." Esme is a fan of employing books as coasters, spilling their pages on numerous occasions with tea. In one episode of "Journey of a Book," she drops a title in soy sauce and attempts to dry its sticky, browned pages on a clothes rack before giving up and reading again. Some books get exposed to damaging outdoor elements. Videos find Esme reading outdoors on her "signature reading rock" in the rain and snow. Her covers also transform with reading; she deposits stickers from her grocery-store purchased apples on their back covers and "collag[es] [their] chapter headings" with a hodgepodge of newspaper and magazine clippings. Sometimes her book's pages hold photos that visualize the story's various sites and settings, other times she stores her debit card between chapters. She makes to-do lists for school- and life-related tasks on the back cover. Her engagement with the book extends, in other words, beyond and outside the story it offers. Reading becomes a thoroughly lived experience, conveyed through the short clip's "final flip through of all the annotations" (see fig. 2) whose accumulated marks, stains, and tears answer her early question: "how does a book end up looking like this?" Esme's and other BookTokers' books emerge as worlds lived in and alongside her own.

A screenshot of a TikTok video where a hand with blue nail polish holds open a heavily annotated book with pen and highlighter markings. The book's margins are covered with tabs. The book rests on a comforter. The typed phrase
Fig. 2: @readbookswithsmee's annotated book

In my "Practice of Criticism" class, which functions as the gateway course for my university's English major, I often ask that students model behavior not dissimilar to what some materially-minded BookTokers embrace in their videos. In our first few weeks together, I emphasize the importance of annotation, asking that we start forging sustained relationships with the early poems we read so that we record how they act on us and how we, in turn, make sense of them. I ask students to purchase a physical copy of our course readings in the form of a course packet, and request that they acquire five different colored writing utensils, each color meant to mark a new and discrete experience with reading. As the first few weeks of the term progress, we sort these annotations around space and time; they read a poem (often one explicitly about reading, whether Walt Whitman's "Whoever You Are Holding Me in Your Hand" (1855) or Frances Harper's "Learning to Read" (1872)) in five different spaces and then at five different times throughout the day. They denote these shifts in textual encounters in a small color key at the corner of the page: a blue pen might mark, for instance, a late morning read on a bench at the campus bus stop while a green pen signifies a nighttime read in bed before dozing off to sleep. Some particularly ambitious students set their alarms to ring in the middle of the night for a brief read-through, seeing what the groggy mind might observe. This documentation of readerly experiences is not all that far astray from what young readers are modeling on the web where bodies are placed in space and time with texts to craft a mutually reciprocal social experience.10 The hashtag #annotation has a whopping 76.6 million views on TikTok, which suggests a renewed investment in reading as a practice rather than product.

While narratives about how writers write abound, casting their craft as deeply material (consider Stephen King's description of his desk and its proximity to a window in On Writing (2000), there are far fewer accounts about how readers read. There is simply less to say about an experience that we are taught to understand as immaterial. The rise of the public library in the mid-nineteenth century U.S. had, book historian Leah Price argues, "trained readers to efface their own bodies."11 To read and to read well is to be disembodied. As Amaranth Borsuk has it, book lovers frequently aver that "we would be better people if we disappeared into books."12 Such an account positions reading as an immaterial experience, one where the story simply overtakes its reader.

This fantasy is an enticing one, and it's what many of us imagine reading to be an escape, or the lightening feeling of being situated in another world far away from our own. But this account is often fantasy. It fails to convey all the material negotiations central to readership. And a readership that is critical knows as much. In the same "Practice of Criticism" class, a student confessed during one of our recent "process check-ins" moments when we account for how we do what we do as critics that she was "a bad reader." We started that day's conversation thinking about how our reading practices and accompanying attention spans might shift based on the genre we are reading; until that moment, we had discussed short poems and were shifting to longer works like short stories. The notion of being a "bad reader" is a declaration that many students have shared with me, both privately and more publicly, on various occasions. They believe there is one good way to read. In response to this student's relatable and rehashed comment, I asked the class, "what makes a good reader"? This student responded, "I can't tell you what makes a good reader," she responded, "but I can tell you what makes a bad one," to which her peers nodded in agreement. She suggested that miscomprehension and its necessity for rereading was a sign of failure: "I don't always understand what I read the first time so I often have to go back and try again." I asked them to reflect on much of what we had discussed in the class, mainly the importance of rereading-or re-encountering-texts that bewilder us, that get us stumped on the first or second try. Many of these virtual posts on social media require that we make space and time for texts in the form of revisiting. Take, for instance, TikTok user @sophiareadstoomuch who features a video about "starting [her] annual read of [Kazuo Ishiguro's] Never Let Me Go" (2005), a text regularly taught in the college classroom. The video starts with her tugging the book off her shelf, making a cup of coffee, opening the novel's first page, and then affixing sticky notes to old and newly arresting passages.

An attention to readerly practices makes space for new modes of encountering texts for readers' varied minds and bodies. One of Esme's most widely debated videos delivers a tutorial for unconventional reading practices; she offers a description of how to successfully read in the shower. This recommendation troubled several book lovers who pride themselves on ensuring that the materiality of their book remains unharmed; the book should be read but it should not look used. Several followers suggest that Esme listen to audiobooks instead, but she explains that because she is deaf she must visually engage with reading and is unable to rely on its sonic equivalent. Esme's practices engender visual but also tactile engagement with her books, which were embraced by other disabled readers bearing witness to her reading experiences on the web. In response to a BuzzFeed article that featured her viral videos showcasing "Book Habits That Make Others Uncomfortable," user Francesmoon notes that Esme's habits seem

super neurodiverse-friendly to me - with ADHD I find highlighting and notes really helpful, and the to-do list honestly made TONS OF SENSE. Reading in the shower also makes sense to me because showers are boring. I do cringe at wrecking books, but I don't think they're being wrecked as much as well-used. She's leaving her mark on them.13

Literary studies scholar Gillian Silverman makes a similar argument to the one that Esme enacts in her videos, suggesting that bibliophiles and neurodiverse people often privilege the "material and sensate" features of texts over their linguistic meaning.14 Modeling sustained intimacy between self and text, BookTok and Bookstagram content creators model alternative entry points for new readers, especially those who may have previously found rigid expectations around "good" reading onerous and impassible.

Attending to the lived experiences of reading extends to BookTok's and Bookstagram's documentation of readerly responses that involve visceral bodily reactions to a book's content. The majority of these contain images of young female readers crying. As Publishers Weekly explains, "Many BookTokers film time-lapse videos of themselves reading a popular book, with the aim of capturing the moment the book makes them cry."15 Explaining the viral sensation of a post in which she recorded herself sobbing to the conclusion of the TikTok bestseller Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles (2011), college student Ayman Chaudhary explains, "It makes people curious like, what could make this book so good, or so sad that it can make you show your emotions and be so vulnerable to the public? Books that make me cry instantly have my money."16 Videos that showcase emotions such as crying reactivate what New Critics had dismissed as mere reader-response, or what critics of nineteenth-century sentimentalism would describe as politically ineffective indeed passive responses to others' suffering that do little more than make an otherwise privileged reader feel good for feeling bad. In our contemporary moment, our understanding of literature as a public good is tied to its production of empathy whether in the form of refugee literature, literature showcasing minority populations, and so on. But resurfacing earlier modes of readerly encounter makes space for the whole experience of reading, with mind and body in tandem. Here, we are granted an approach to reading that is intimate with the text in the way New Criticism demands but also insists that such text be placed in the space and time of the reader's experience.

Macalester College student Charley, who goes by the username @cem.reads on Instagram, features photographs of selected reading material and their reviews of them in various spaces not only the home but the bookstore, coffee and tea shops, and outside on the lawn or at the park. In one post, their melted iced latte is positioned alongside Samantha Silva's Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft (2021), which sits atop their New Yorker tote. BookTok and Bookstagram feature books as worlds within another world. Here, the physical book straddles Wollstonecraft's eighteenth-century moment and our own, suggesting that the story both then and now reaches beyond the page. Other posts suggest the potential impossibility of such straddling. In the wake of the 2023 conflict between Israel and Palestine, the Instagram users have posted images of Palestinian writer Adania Shibli's Minor Detail (2017) alongside lattes. Here, we witness the limits of empathy for readers prone to romanticizing reading even if temporarily outside of its real, material effects on the bodies that lie beyond the post's frame.

Instructors of literature might invite these digital platforms into the classroom as an occasion to think about social media's return to physical aspects of reading (reading with the body and the material world), which allow new modes of interpretation and non-interpretation to surface in pedagogy. The digital is not so immaterial after all, and rather than detract from the work of literary criticism, it is giving young readers agency. Not only do the books circulating on Instagram and TikTok reshape bestseller lists, but they also encourage diversity of fictional representation and map alternative canons through the creation of new literary genres like "romantasy," which require new descriptions, definitions, and methods for reading. As Julia J. Hynek argues in the Harvard Crimson, "BookTok ... removes the intellectualized perceptions of literature and instead welcomes genres that have been previously stigmatized back into the fold," asking that we bring renewed attention to "young adult fiction, romance, and fantasy romance."17 Rather than allow these virtual accounts of book-related intimacy to simply influence the space of the classroom, we might also allow the conversations raised in seminar conversations to make their way onto the web. I imagine a contemporary literature class that documents annotation practices, both individual and communal, in a public platform. Or a class that is asked to film its readerly frustrations reading alongside its pleasures. Or a conversation that stages counter-reviews to fill in what other users' videos leave out. Such dual directionality is one way of ensuring that higher education becomes less exclusive. To grade such assignments would be less a rewarding of literary prowess than an embrace of the struggles of reading, of how we get books to enter our bodies and our minds to make sense of them. To attend not just to the what of reading but the how of it is to consider the varying capacities of the bodies and minds of readers themselves. Students' virtual accounts of the endlessly material sites of reading, as they exist both in and outside university spaces, have the capacity to reshape literary studies for a more expansive and relevant future.

Clare Mullaney is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University where she teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. literature, disability studies, and book history. Her current book project, A Word Made Flesh: Disability Writing and Editorship in U.S. Literary Culture, explores how editors recover writing about disability without erasing marks of author's impairments or their access needs from the page.


  1. Scholars approach the citation of social media accounts in a variety of ways. In a recent Post45: Contemporaries piece, for example, Lindsay Thomas does not "identify creators by username ... in accordance with norms in fan studies, wherein it is general practice not to include full citations (or sometimes even links) to people's social media posts." "Book Tok and the Rituals or Recommendation," Post45: Contemporaries, 8 December 2023. I am less invested in assessing the aggregate of all users than in framing users' individual posts as their own contemporary texts, which are worth reading and worth giving credit to as published cultural objects.[]
  2. Digital humanists like Katherine Hayles warn us of such laments, arguing that the shift to digital forms of reading has occasioned "hyper reading," which demands its own forms of comprehension different from but just as meaningful as close reading. See Hayles, "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine," ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 62-79.[]
  3. Jake Helm, "What is BookTok: the TikTok trend sending decades-old books up bestseller lists." The Evening Standard, 31 March 2021.[]
  4. See Thomas, "Book Tok and the Rituals or Recommendation," for an account of BookTok and the power of recommendation.[]
  5. Sarah Clifton, "How BookTok has rekindled college students' love of reading," The Crimson White, 23 January 2022.[]
  6. As Merve Emre reminds us in Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) this is not a new concern. []
  7. Thomas, "BookTok and the Rituals of Recommendation."[]
  8. Angelina Hue, "TikTok's inspiring a reading renaissance and it's turning decade-old books into first-time bestsellers," Business Insider, 18 September 2021.[]
  9. Alison Flood, "The rise of BookTok: meet the teen influencers pushing books up the charts," The Guardian, 25 June 2021.[]
  10. TikTok embraces what Jerome McGann calls "the textual condition" a text's mix of linguistic and bibliographic features to create meaning. See McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton University Press, 1991).[]
  11. Leah Price, "Reading," "Reading: The State of the Discipline." Book History no. 7 (2004): 309. []
  12. Amaranth Borsuk, The Book (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018), 86.[]
  13. Chloe Williams, "This Woman Posted Her Reading Habits and TikTokers Lost Their Minds," Buzzfeed, 11 May 2021.[]
  14. Gillian Silverman, "Neurodiversity and the Revision of Book History," PMLA 131, no. 2 (2016): 309.[]
  15. Sophia Stewart, "How TikTok Makes Backlist Books into Bestsellers," Publishers Weekly, 3 September 2021.[]
  16. Flood, "The rise of BookTok."[]
  17. Hynek, "BookTok: The Last Wholesome Place on the Internet," The Harvard Crimson, 29 March 2022.[]