As a child, I could spend hours in a bookstore. Amidst the murmurs of fellow bookworms and the satisfying turning of pages, I wandered the kid’s aisle with my head tilted sideways as I traced the spines along the shelves and drew out books, meticulously deciding which would be my next pick. Although I would still happily spend hours in a bookstore today, my mind is full of the viral books I’ve seen on TikTok. Instead of looking for beautiful art covers, I spend a vast amount of time scouring the shelves for familiar names. Even when I do get roped in by an intriguing book, I instantly check its Goodreads rating—anything less than four stars is a waste of time! 

Like many others, I trust the internet’s opinions more than my own. Recently, I’ve realized how often I use TikTok to search for a product’s reviews before I buy it. In the pursuit of not wanting to risk wasting time and money on a bad mascara or an ugly mug, we lose confidence in our judgments. We depend on others’ validation of what is worth buying instead of learning more about our likes and dislikes. If the internet raves about button–down shirts and slicked–backed buns as part of the ‘clean girl aesthetic,’ and our style doesn’t fit that mold, we can’t help but question our own judgment.

BookTok, the term given to the side of TikTok obsessed with books, has done wonders for curating best–seller lists. There is no better example of this than Colleen Hoover's books, which exploded on BookTok. In 2022, she wrote four of the 10 best–selling books, according to NPD BookScan. Although BookTok may have once been about actually reading books, it now puts as much emphasis on buying books. There are videos of people showcasing all of their unread books (some with as many as 300), filming a tour of their color–coded home libraries, and giving a rundown of all the books they read in a week. In a 2023 Guardian piece, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett refers to this obsession with owning books as a “cult”: People buy books for “boasting about [them],” treat having them as a “stand–in for [their] personality,” and believe that possessing more books makes them “know things.” Hoarding books and showing them off has become more important than actually reading them. 

BookTok readers can verge on the performative—looking well–read versus, well, reading. In a 2022 article, author Stephanie Danler highlights how on the app, it wasn't enough to “just show a book by Clarice Lispector. To be successful, an account had to perform being a ‘woman who reads Clarice Lispector.’” The “literary girl” aesthetic has brought “an uncanny falseness” to BookTok, one that involves “a showy nothingness that only approximates bibliophilia,” according to Barry Pierce for GQ. After all, the BookTok literary girl is cool and mysterious—who wouldn’t want to be part of that club?   

Being perceived as an intellectual is the hot new thing. Everyone wants others to see them as part of the intelligentsia. There are entire businesses that revolve around curating libraries for people’s homes. Celebrities have gone as far as to get book stylists to pick out books for them. Uniqueness and authenticity have eroded and have instead been replaced by an obsession with how we look to others.  

With intellectualism becoming “cool,” capitalism has done what it does best: Books, like many other art forms, are now treated overwhelmingly as commodities to possess instead of pieces of literature to get lost in. Owning books is guaranteed to give the buyer “cool” points by letting the world know that they are well–read. And what better way to showcase that we are not only smart but also in the know than to have books others will recognize? 

Bookstores all over the world, from Philadelphia to Lahore, have a “BookTok Made Me Read It” section, exhibiting the covers of a collection of TikTok viral books. Pierce describes these as a “subgenre of easily–bingeable novels that all sort of have the same cover.” It’s rare to look at a book cover today and truly be impressed by its unique design. Most books—especially those that go viral—follow the same formula. Neutral, solid colors with lowercase Times New Roman text. Colorful blobs intersecting with one another, with all–capital, white titles. As highlighted in a Print Magazine article, writer Alana Pockros referred to this as the “unicorn frappuccino cover,” while New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka called it “the Zombie Formalism of book covers.” 

When a book goes viral on TikTok and sees exponential success, it is no surprise that other authors and publishers will jump on the bandwagon and try to sell books with similar aesthetics. They’re forced to resort to “safer” design choices that they know will earn them money. Releasing numerous books with almost identical covers will likely increase the chance of their success. Much like the algorithm, which studies past likes and recommends other products, a similar cover design can entice lovers of The Vanishing Half, for example, to buy Such a Fun Age

When people are told what books to look for, there’s no more need for individuals to take their time and pick out the best of the best. A title, or a last name, is all they need. Thus, there is less of an incentive for publishers to be creative with book cover design. They resort to tried–and–true designs like colorful blobs or minimalist, modern layouts, desperate to make it onto the huge, eye–catching displays of covers located in the middle of the store. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been enticed by many books because of their covers—my tumblr–esque copy of Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey still gathers dust on my desk. This can quickly become dangerous if these books, no matter how pretty they are, sit idly in our shelves for the rest of our lives—books become decor pieces rather than portals into magical worlds. And with new software like CoverDesignAI, a website that uses AI to custom make book covers, is the future of book covers doomed to monotonous and similar designs without any personality?

While technology may have been our portal into the world of infinite and instant information, it has narrowed our horizons in more ways than one. We listen to already curated Spotify playlists instead of losing ourselves in the melody of a live performance. Where we once used to make trips to the cinema, we now scour Letterboxd for tried–and–tested movie suggestions. Our internet reliance has suppressed our curiosity and sense of adventure. We have forgotten that a huge part of having a genuine and deep interest in something is the time and effort we put into it. 

Yet, all hope is not lost: Changing our outlook is in our control. Reading doesn’t have to be purely performative or based on the visual aesthetic, even if it started out that way. We have the ability and means to make our interest deeply genuine; we can get lost in the mountains of unique covers in local bookstores, talk to friends and ask them what books they love, and discover our culture’s history through its classic literature.