Friday, June 18, 2021

I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie; or, My Problem with Bookstagram

hours spent at the library

Summer has always felt like the best time to tackle big books that I've been meaning to read. Long stretches of empty time spread like a blanket before me while I lounge at the pool or beach. Lazy afternoons with nothing to do until dinner lend themselves well to books with high page counts.

I've taken on War and Peace, East of Eden, and The Goldfinch in the hottest months of the year. This summer may be record-breaking for page counts for me. I've started four books that are over 400 pages and I'm moving (slow but steady) through two 700+ page novels. 

I love getting completely lost in the disparate worlds of each of these books but at the same time, I'm fretting over my monthly reading totals which will surely drop thanks to all of these bricks I'm reading. 

I get annoyed with long chapters or solid pages of text, where dense paragraphs seem to roll on endlessly, or at least onto the next page. These things slow me down and I do not want to be slowed down.

But here's the tricky part...I'm actually enjoying these books, like, a lot. I look forward to picking up each one and find myself immersed in the stories and marveling at how authors can use such different styles and still take my breath away. So why can't I just relax and enjoy this good luck? 

I'll tell you why: Bookstagram.

from my Bookstagram account

I have a personal Instagram account where I share photos of my kids and only accept friend requests from people I know IRL. But a couple of years ago I made a Bookstagram account. It's just a regular account that is public, where I post all things bookish and keep the personal information to a minimum. I follow other Bookstagram accounts, publishers, booksellers, and book bloggers. 

At first, it was really fun. It was all bookish enthusiasm and earnestness about well-loved books. But slowly it began to eat away at my reading life.

It started with book influencers peddling books they hadn't read for publishers who sent them free copies. I quickly learned to read posts carefully so I could tell if this person had actually read the book they were raving about or not, but I still get fooled sometimes.

I began to notice that I was feeling pressured to join "read alongs" with my favorite Bookstagramers, buying buzzy books because of the sheer volume of posts I was seeing, and changing my reading to accommodate poetry month, "non-fiction-November", and various other monthly reading challenges. 

TBR, not the books I read in June

I read to learn and I don't need a social media app to remind me to read different genres, themes, and a variety of authors from wide-ranging experiences. It's true that I have found some books that have taught me important things and broadened my worldview, that I wouldn't have known about except through Bookstagram, but those came from personal conversations from a few Bookstagrammers that I have built friendships with, not from the frantic peer pressure that springs up every month.

The end of the month book totals are depressing, too. Bookstagrammers lover to flex what they read by posting all the covers of the books they read that month displayed in a single image. I get it, some people read a lot more than me (these are the ones who one who reads less than me, or the same as me, posts...), and that's ok. But it really takes the wind out of your reading sails to see people completing 20-25 books a month. 

reading in Kauai

When I reflect on why I'm feeling twitchy as I read, I think it's the net effect of the Bookstagram influence. So for the next few weeks, I'm going to limit my time on that app and prune the people who I follow. When I do these two things I find I read more and care less about Bookstagram and more about if I'm enjoying the books I read. I also find myself back in the driver's seat, choosing what I read and why and when. This is a hobby I do for joy, relaxation, fun, and learning so I should get to be the boss of it.

******Disclaimer: Bookstagram isn't the devil. Consumed in small doses with a healthy frame of mind it can be really fun and rewarding. I have found friends from all over the world on Bookstagram who are my absolute favorite follows. But approach it with caution because it can quickly get out of hand.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Summer Reading: 2021 Edition

This is my 16th summer as a mother. In that time I’ve tried all kinds of ways to keep my kids reading through the hottest months of the year: library programs with their disappointing prizes (one year, our library gave out 1 raffle entry/book read, the prize was a bike but they didn’t announce the winner until September…try explaining that to an eight-year-old), homemade reading charts (thanks, Pinterest), and plain, old-fashioned begging. 

Last year our reading plan was pretty successful. Most days the kids read for an hour but it was almost always a painful hour. I made book baskets for each kid based on what I thought they should read and the lists of summer reading ideas from their teachers. If they completed the books in their basket they would get $50. I have learned that my children are best motivated by cold, hard cash—they take after their mom and dad, I guess.

As summer approached this year, I reflected on last year, what worked and what didn’t. Yes, all four kids read all of the titles in their baskets, but I had to drag them to the den daily and they complained about it loudly. 

I remembered the summer I spent devouring Gone with the Wind, just because I wanted to read a really ambitious book. There was another summer when I stayed up late reading through The Babysitters Club Super Special editions with a flashlight in my bed. Lazy days spent stretched out on the couch reading, with the AC blasting and a pile of books nearby marked most of my summers from kindergarten through eighth grade. These are some of my fondest reading memories.

I also remembered the summers in high school with lists of books I was required to read and journal about. One or two of those books made an impression, but those summers were nothing like my past experiences or the way I felt getting lost in Life of Pi on a beach in Kauai just a few years later. 

I decided I had to improve upon last year’s summer reading plan. There will still be a minimum hour of daily reading, there will still be $50, there will still be book baskets. The major difference is that this year, the kids get to pick the books they read.

We had reading meetings last week (this may be my favorite kind of meeting ever). They shopped our shelves and thought about what they wanted to read this summer. I explained that if a book is not working for them we can swap it out. We can be flexible. Isn’t that what we all learned in 2020?

They each brought lists with a wide variety of books and even some that completely surprised me. I don’t know if this will turn from a “have to” to a “get to” situation, but I do know there is already more excitement about summer reading than last year. And who knows, maybe one of the kids will connect with a book like I did with Gone with the Wind, maybe they will stay up late reading, or pack a book in a beach bag. Hope springs eternal.