An underrated side of TikTok: discovering novels through BookTok 

November 8, 2023 — by Sunny Cao
Photo by Sunny Cao
A few of the many books that BookTok has recommended to me. 
This niche corner of the app has led me to both great reads and questionable ones.

#fyp, #FitTok, and #BookTok — these are all terms you would recognize if you are on TikTok. These subcultures of niche topics have formed a formidable place on the app, and they are a great way for communities of people with niche interests to come together. I myself have dabbled in them slightly, mostly through the BookTok hashtag, which has allowed me into a community in either joint praise or criticism of a book. 

#BookTok consists of book reviews and recommendations. It first grew to prominence during the pandemic, when teens stuck at home started sharing the books they were reading though the hashtag. The target audience is young adults, and the books recommended are predominantly young adult (YA) romance and thriller novels. 

Like most other internet trends, BookTok has its positives and negatives. While it does expose readers to unique and great reads, it’s also problematic in that recommendations often romanticize toxic relationships. 

I first started on BookTok my freshman summer, which was when it trended the most and I had lots of free time to read. 

Scrolling through the endless numbers of videos on #BookTok made me feel “productive” during the summer, and I quickly fell into the BookTok rabbit hole. In addition to the exposure to new books, the community within the BookTok hashtag made me feel connected to others online. After I had read a book, I could go back to the hashtag and relate to others’ reactions to the plot progression. It was a big yet tight-knit community, and with every book I read, it felt like I was suddenly in on another secret inside joke. 

 The first book I picked up that summer was a mysterious and invigorating YA novel called “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart. It was an intriguing read that featured a twisted tale about the seemingly perfect Sinclair family who hides their secrets and lies behind their tall and handsome reputations. There was a gripping plot twist at the end that was very well written and not nearly as predictable as other YA novels I’ve read. 

The second book that BookTok sent my way was Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” which follows the life of an old Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo (a fictional character), and the legacy she left behind throughout her seven marriages to her seven husbands. It revealed stunning secrets and lies about her rise to fame.

This book was all over TikTok when it came out in June 2017, and rightfully so. Despite being written in an interview style, I loved the book, which was surprising since this style of writing usually fails to keep my attention. This book definitely lived up to its expectations, and even though some BookTok recommendations get overhyped, this one deserves every bit of its popularity.  

Then there are the duds. BookTok seems to have a favorite author, Colleen Hoover. Every time I open BookTok, some form of her YA work is pushed into my feed. Tired of all the advertising, I finally decided to pick up one of her most popular books, called “It Ends With Us.” With all the hype around it, my expectations were high. 

However, it greatly underwhelmed me. 

The book followed a pretty typical love triangle trope, where the main character Lily meets and falls in love with the male lead, Ryle, before her childhood lover Atlas comes back and changes her current life. The plot was boring and very predictable, leaving it with no emotional value. In addition, the book also promoted a toxic relationship between Ryle and Lily that goes unresolved in the end: Lily just seemed to forget the abuse she endured from [her lover?] and the whole ending was very ‘happily ever after’ and glossed over. It’s as if slapping that happily-ever-after trademark — commonly known as HEA books — on any romance would make it immediately appealing. This is also a common trend with Hoover’s other books, such as “Ugly Love,” which also romanticizes emotional abuse brought on by the intensity of love. Finally, her prequel to “It Ends With Us,” “It Starts with Us.” Also shares the same unhealthy themes.  

And it isn’t just Hoover who feeds into this toxic relationship trope. In fact, romanticizing toxic romances is one of the most widespread parts of BookTok. Many authors who pursue that fantastical “I’ll die for you” romance trope often send the wrong message with their plots and character developments. To their target audience — impressionable teenagers — the ideal romance is portrayed as manipulative, toxic and abusive. 

Despite problematic recommendations like Hoover’s books, BookTok has mostly been positive in my experience, and most of the books I’ve stumbled upon were enjoyable reads. 

My advice: Give BookTok a try, but tread carefully. Don’t just read books because of their hype and don’t rely on BookTok reviews entirely. Instead, consider reviews from other sources like GoodReads and Amazon to weigh whether the book will actually fit your reading tastes, and even if a book is a dud, you can always go on the hashtag and agree with those who share similar opinions. BookTok is a great place for building community, but it’s important to realize its flaws and shortcomings. 

Tags: books, tiktok
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