The Quantity Over Quality Approach to Reading

Is the pressure to have a high book count making it impossible to enjoy reading?

Published: Feb 20, 2024  |  

Assistant Editor at New Thinking

While some would describe their love of reading as an almost spiritual practice, others treat reading as an opportunity to rush through as many books as they can in as little time as possible. With the rising popularity of the Libby app (via Overdrive), audiobooks offered with Spotify memberships, and e-readers galore, access to literature is greater than ever. But with so much to consume, are we really digesting what we’re reading?

It seems that more people are rediscovering the magic of reading. By now you’ve probably heard of BookTok, the extensive TikTok phenomenon, and you may even have a Goodreads account to rate books and share with friends. Reading has become ‘trendy’, and people are obsessed with cracking the code to maximize their abilities.

To anyone who has been reading this whole time, you have probably noticed this influx too. Suddenly everyone is an avid reader! BookTok is flooded with hundreds of videos suggesting tips on how to read better, faster, and more often. Speed reading is all the rage. Many of these BookTokers share that they’ve read 75, 100, and even 118 books in the last year. The trend has become oversaturated enough to incite other creators to make fun of these ‘dedicated readers’- including one satirist who facetiously touted that she read over 1,000 books by listening to audiobooks and reading paperbacks at the same time. These BookTokers rarely read self-help books or Karl Marx, they tend to prefer romance, fantasy, and other fiction. Novels with recognizable covers are chosen because of their constant appearances in nearly identical videos. Barry Pierce from GQ UK criticizes BookTok as promoting the ‘aesthetic’ of being a reader over actually reading. Danika Ellis from Book Riot suggests that the hobby has transformed from enjoying a novel to simply collecting and hoarding books.

People want to improve their reading skills largely to look smarter, more diligent, and more impressive to their friends and colleagues. Dozens of articles online dole out tips and tricks for reading more- many recommend reading in small chunks at any spare moment, increasing audiobook speed to at least 1.25x, and prioritizing reading over anything else, like bathing and exercising. While these tips are great for those who need to pore through manuscripts for their profession, should these tips be attributed to those wanting to read for enjoyment, fulfillment, and as a stress reliever? This now sounds like a casual pastime perpetuating more work. And if people are really reading so much, are they able to recall plot details and favorite characters? Are they able to give a proper synopsis?

If all this time and effort is going into competitive reading, wouldn’t it be nice to remember what the books are about?

Re-popularizing reading is ultimately a good thing. Reading has proven benefits such as exercising the brain, improving literacy, sleep, and concentration, and relieving stress and anxiety. Users of forums like Reddit, Medium, and Quora express gratitude, some saying, “Libby has changed my life,” and “I hadn’t read a book since middle school and I’ve found my love for reading again.” I run into people all the time now who are proud members of a book club. Some are even involved in two book clubs. It’s great that people want to become ‘addicted’ to reading again or return to a youthful state of bookishness. A friend of mine recently became so hooked on a romance saga that she deigned to download the next book in the series off of a sketchy website. She wouldn’t recommend this option though, as these sites exist in a legal gray area and she had an ad pop up every time she turned a page. The existence of free reading websites tells us that there is an almost urgent demand for immediate literature access.

At the same time, there is more pressure to get through all the most popular books that are shown on social media over and over again with only mildly different critiques. This can help some authors, yes, but where is the variety? Maybe it doesn’t have to be Colleen Hoover’s covers on repeat. The paradox of choice comes into play when we see reports that Americans are buying many more books than in previous years, but actually reading less, as explained in this Lithub article.

While the Goodreads platform is known to be detrimental to authors and publishing houses, it is too useful for checking out reviews to go away. One can also use the platform to track annual reading goal progress, which is a great practice in theory, but it begs the question; are we becoming more focused on the sheer amount of books we are skimming through over the quality of the content? I write about this knowing that I am part of the problem, encouraging my friends to “follow me on Goodreads!” and then being disappointed when my favorite books get 2.5 stars. I’m also guilty of adding books to my ‘Read’ list even if I haven’t finished them. There is a sense of inferiority that can be felt if a bookworm isn’t matching up to the high numbers of those participating in BookTok trends and tacking title after title onto their Goodreads profile.

But why should we feel inadequate over something we want to enjoy?

Wanting more of what we want is a form of greed. In Buddhist teachings, greed is regarded as a poison that infiltrates our lives and pushes us to strive towards unattainable goals. These desires breed new desires and make it impossible for one to ever feel satisfied. It isn’t feasible to read all of the popular books out there, but it is possible to deeply connect and engage with literature and share those experiences with loved ones. Whatever happened to spending time in bookstores, perusing shelves, and reading hardcover sleeves? What happened to discovering a beloved author and then reading everything in existence they’ve written, no matter the publish date? What about passing by a free library on the street and picking up a used copy, possibly even swapping it for one of your own?

When authors are writing novels they aren’t imagining their readers speeding through to check it off their list or move further down their stack. Authors hope that their work is felt, thought about, and cared for. Stories are about connection and understanding of the human experience. Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She didn’t say, “We speed-read through hundreds of stories in order to boost our stats.” •

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