LITERATURE

BookTok might be changing the way Filipinos read

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The TikTok community is responsible for thousands of people around the world — including Filipinos — picking up a reading habit.

After the pandemic cut my in-person university life short, I’ve since studied in Trinity College in Dublin, Warren University in New England, and the University of Exeter in the UK — by that I mean I’ve vicariously lived through the college lives of “Normal People’s” Marianne and Connell, “Bunny’s” Samantha, and “Everything I Know About Love’s” Dolly Alderton, respectively.

Books have always taken us places, but this transportive ability gained unprecedented relevance come stay-at-home orders. Frankly, reading was a welcome coping mechanism. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that I discovered these titles — and my love for reading — from another coping mechanism: TikTok.

Aptly named BookTok, this corner of the app dubbed the last wholesome place on the Internet is responsible for thousands of people around the world — including Filipinos — picking up a reading habit, regardless if they had been interested in books prior to the community’s conception. Because of BookTok, Vianchi, 25, started reading again after seven years. Chia, 18, has never read as much as she’s reading now. Aya, 18, did not read at all until they found BookTok. As of writing, the hashtag #BooktokPH has yielded 139.9 million views on TikTok.

The ever-growing community increasingly makes its presence felt outside the app. When Bryan, who makes BookTok content as Bryan Hoards Books, made a viral video about the young adult mystery thriller “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder,” a local bookstore saw an influx in orders. He adds, “Local bookstores now have their own ‘BookTok favorites’ section on both their physical and online stores. I have also seen new local book businesses emerge along the way; most of them even cater to pre-orders from international bookstores.” (For context, bookstore sections dedicated to YouTube or Instagram rarely exist, perhaps proving BookTok’s unparalleled impact.)

Screenshots from Fully Booked and National Book Store’s online “BookTok” shelves. PHOTO FROM NATIONALBOOKSTORE.COM

No one really knows how videos about books that make us cry or cutesy feel-good romcom books found their way on our For You Pages. True to TikTok’s mystical, hyper-personalized algorithm, book-related videos simply popped up, and soon users found themselves overcoming year-long reading slumps. Such is the story of Julienne, known to her TikTok followers as Love, Julienne, who rekindled her love for reading after being burnt out on BookTube, BookTok’s older YouTube counterpart.

“Factor yung short videos [sa TikTok],” she says, “Sa BookTube kasi, gagawa sila ng 10-minute videos about one book lang, so ang makakakita noon, usually yung mga interested lang talaga sa book na ‘yon.” Because of TikTok’s three-minute limit, creators cut to the chase, often showcasing multiple titles and using tropes and themes as shorthand for what makes them appealing. They round up books with sapphic protagonists, beautifully crafted enemies to lovers, even books with female characters that can end you in one second — all before a 30-second snippet of a viral song stops playing.

Julienne also observes that BookTok is more casual. Bryan, who has been posting about books on Instagram since 2018, agrees: “Bookstagram thrives on perfectly polished aesthetics, [while] BookTok embraces everyone.” On TikTok, creators have free rein: some act out scenes, make book-inspired moodboards, or record their (usually weepy) natural reaction to a book’s ending. “I saw TikToks where people showed themselves after reading ‘A Little Life’ [by Hanya Yanagihara] and I got so curious why everybody was crying so I got it for myself,” shares 19-year-old Hannah.

“Many people are seeing this side of reading, that it can be fun,” says 27-year-old content creator Jam, who started including books in her videos during quarantine. “It can be for pure entertainment and not all books are intimidating.”

BookTok’s laidback nature lends a sense of authenticity that readers now deem crucial in finding book recommendations, to the point that they trust BookTok creators more than bestseller lists or publisher-backed promotions. “Strangers don’t feel like strangers and reviews aren’t intimidating or overwhelming for the newbie reader. That’s not something you get from other platforms,” says Vianchi. Bianca finds that reviews on BookTok are fueled by a creator’s pure passion for a book, and as such feels more personal than publishers telling her to buy something. She adds that BookTok made literary criticism — often regarded highbrow or excessively academic — feel new and accessible.

And because of TikTok’s randomized algorithm, more and more users discover these short, accessible reviews, opening them up not just to the immersive world of reading but to the plethora of genres they may not check out otherwise. College student Therese, who creates videos as nottheresereads, has always been a voracious reader, but joining BookTok pushed her to venture out. “Out of the many years na nagbabasa ako ng libro, hindi ako napapaisip dati na, bakit parang all white people yung binabasa ko,” she says. “BookTok diversified my reading.”

This debunks the common misconception about BookTok: that it recommends the same titles over and over again. While many books did go massively viral in the app — many of which indeed are straight and white — the community is growing rapidly on a global scale, and given its grassroots, self-made nature, creators of marginalized identities are able to celebrate books that may get overlooked in book charts or other platforms.

Queer books often take center stage. Some creators make videos about Rick Riordan and Colleen Hoover one day, then Bob Ong and Jonaxx the next. Every August, BookTok joins Wikathon, an annual readathon spotlighting Filipino authors, where readers are introduced to the likes of Jessica Zafra and Nick Joaquin.

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I was bitten by the BookTok bug mid-2021, and when a video I made about “Sexuality and the Filipina” from the University of the Philippines Press gained attention, it cemented my belief that local readers are receptive to Filipino titles; they just don’t know where to find them. The book has since been sold out, with the top review on the Press’ online store thanking BookTok for the recommendation.

This is not an isolated case. Filipino author S.J. Wolf says TikTok has been instrumental in the promotion of their self-published novel “Under the City Lights:" “TikTok reaches billions of people worldwide. It’s also free marketing, and it’s very helpful for small-time authors.” It’s in contrast to other platforms like Facebook, which requires her to pay for ads before showing her book to an audience she can access on TikTok for no cost.

As a reader, S.J. finds BookTok “a very comforting community,” noting that for many people, books became their friends during long periods of isolation. Entrepreneur and content creator Cleo, who started reading and creating book content during quarantine, feels the same way. “People needed an escape, and books did that for us,” she says. “It gives us a sense of connection with other humans, a feeling that we have been longing for since this pandemic started.”

Books have always had that power — I recall Joan Didion’s oft-quoted statement, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — and BookTok is an extension of that. “Ang comforting na umiyak ako sa part na ‘to ng book, and siya on the other side of the world, umiyak din. It creates some sort of bond,” Therese explains. Many readers also express that BookTok makes them feel seen, understood, and that they belong; feelings they struggle to find anywhere else, especially now.

Many readers also express that BookTok makes them feel seen, understood, and that they belong; feelings they struggle to find anywhere else, especially now.

That said, because TikTok is built to incentivize rapid content consumption, creators feel an obligation to read more. There’s also the pressure to buy as many physical books as possible — an issue endemic to BookTube and Bookstagram as well — which makes reading seem accessible only to those who can afford tall, full shelves.

Bryan assures readers that anyone is welcome in the Booktok community, “even if you’re reading ebooks.” Julienne shares that she takes reading breaks to combat burnout, though they never last too long: “Nae-encourage talaga ‘ko magbasa [dahil sa BookTok], kasi marami akong nakikilalang bagong authors, bagong books.” Therese reminds readers to “not let anyone pressure you into reading books you don’t want to.”

I remember my first few weeks on BookTok, watching ten-second book unboxing videos and seeing dozens of comments bearing variations of “I hope you enjoy the book.” I soften at the sheer purity of the act, and I find myself posting the same well-wishes. In a way, the title of the books don’t even matter — it’s enough that we both find refuge in reading, that we both know something everyone else doesn’t. I double-tap, comment “happy reading!” and, for the first time in a long time, scroll without a gnawing sense of dread.