A gif of illustrated social media screens showing book piles and reading numbers.
A gif of illustrated social media screens showing book piles and reading numbers.

In a battered, red composition notebook with white cracks snaking across its cover, Aurora Dimitre keeps a list of every book she’s read since 2012. The 23-year-old English teacher has nearly a decade’s worth of reading stored in the lined pages – flick through and you can trace a teen taste for vampire fantasies growing into an enduring appreciation for Stephen King. Every time Dimitre finishes a book, she adds it to her list sandwiched between two figures: its page count, and a running tally of the number of books she’s read that year

So far, Dimitre has finished 51 books in 2021 (last year, she didn’t hit that number until July). "I do just love having a physical, tangible document that I can pick up and flip through," the North Dakotan says – she started the notebook in high school because she was curious about exactly how much she read. That total, however, remains her own. "I’ve never really seen the point of sharing my count on social media."

Whether you scroll away your time on Facebook, Reddit, TikTok, Twitter, or Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that not every reader keeps their habits as private as Dimitre. On TikTok alone, videos hashtagged #readingjournal have been viewed 3.7 million times, and it has become so common for people to share the number of books they’ve read in a week, month, or year, that backlash has begun. "Stop reading to accumulate and compete over the number you’ve read," reads one January 2021 tweet with over 2,300 likes. Another that same month: "Counting the number of books you read seems so anti-the-whole-point-of-reading."

For naysayers, book counting seems at best pointless and at worst prideful. Yet for counters like Dimitre, it’s a ritual that can be motivating, self-esteem boosting, and frankly fascinating. Dimitre’s log is inadvertently a diary that documents the years in which she had the most free time and conversely, the periods of her life which were more of a struggle. Nikoleta Nutley, a 32-year-old retail worker from Toronto, tracks her reading habits so extensively that she’s noticed a number of fascinating patterns over the years (she consistently reads the most in August and October. In 2019, she read every day except Black Friday because of her job). As such, she can use her record to identify when she doesn’t “make enough time” for herself.

So is there more to book counting than its deniers think? Can tracking our reading habits actually tell us something deeper about ourselves? Is there an interesting history behind why and how we started doing this in the first place?

But wait, nah. Back to the naysayers. Isn’t this whole thing just a way for us to look and feel really, really smart?

It all started with the Lesenrevolution. The phrase, popularised by German historian Rolf Engelsing, translates as "reading revolution"; the theory posits that there was a shift in 18th-century Europe when people began reading a greater number and variety of texts. "People went from reading a small number of books repeatedly – the Bible, almanacs, devotional works like The Pilgrim’s Progress – to reading a large number of books once or twice," explains Edmund King, an English lecturer at The Open University who is also co-director of HOBAR, the History of Books and Reading research collaboration. King says rising literacy, cheaper and more varied books, plus increased leisure time have allowed more people to read more and more throughout history.

But when exactly did we start keeping count? King points to the rise of diary keeping and letter writing among the middle classes in 19th-century Britain: he nicknames these people the “self-recording classes”. While diaries in one form or another are age-old, King says diary keeping was bolstered at this time by commercial diary manufacturers such as Letts.

“Letts were offering 55 different types of diary to consumers by 1862; these diaries were designed to provide diarists with more and more spaces for list-making and self-recording,” King says, explaining some diaries contained directive headings like “books read” and “books to read”. While undoubtedly people made such lists before this point, King claims this was the point at which the practice became widespread and further entrenched in our culture.

We also have a long history of showing off our reading habits. Before the advent of the printing press, elaborately illustrated, personalised books were an expensive and luxurious status symbol in Europe. But boasting is of course subjective: when Theodore Roosevelt shared his reading tips in the Ladies Home Journal in 1915 and wrote “I would be hopeless to try to enumerate all the books I read, or even all the kinds”, was he flaunting his skills or just being honest (he allegedly read multiple books a day)? Either way, it’s clear people liked talking about their reading habits long before social media.

For many,  keeping lists of what they've read is a habit picked up in childhood. Nutley, for example, knows exactly why she counts books: when she was a child, her school organised a “readathon” to raise money for a Multiple Sclerosis charity (pupils earned donations for everything they read). Many schools have similar initiatives or encourage students to keep a personal log. For nearly 40 years in the States, Pizza Hut has run a program called “Book It!” that rewards children with pizzas after they read a number of books set by their teacher.

Nutley now uses a bullet journal, spreadsheet, and the website Goodreads to monitor her reading. The site was launched in 2007 and ushered in a new era of book tracking. By 2013 it had 15 million users; now 90 million people use the site, which has clearly both uncovered and bolstered an attitude for cataloguing and discussing books online. Just like a cheesy margherita, online book communities offer an extrinsic reward for reading – the dopamine hit of likes and comments from our peers.

Robert Cooke, a 37-year-old customer support worker from Dublin, doesn’t deny he felt a buzz when he told his Facebook and Instagram followers about reading 100 books last year.

"I probably wouldn’t have posted had I read five books in the year, so I guess some part of it is boasting," he admits. "I got a bunch of likes and a few comments saying ‘Wow’ and the like. It felt good."

But not everyone is happy when other people share their reading achievements. Although Nutley sees book counting as a "neutral" act (she also tracks her sleep, water consumption, and activity levels), she has faced criticism from others when sharing her count online (in 2020, she finished 210 books). "I've received – and seen – a lot of comments from people who found it boastful," she says. “There is a worry there."

Seeing others share their count online can undoubtedly spur a range of emotions, from pride in a pal to disbelief to envy. For some, book counting can foster rivalry and competition: this was the experience of Mihir Gupta, an 18-year-old software developer from Jaipur.

"I was skimming through books just to a hit a number," Gupta confesses – he began tracking his reading in his early teens and stopped last summer. "It was social validation; you look good in front of friends and family like, ‘Okay, you must be so intelligent if you read 50 books a year’." When he was 12, Gupta had an unspoken rivalry with a friend he visited the library with, and he felt similar competitiveness when he saw people posting book counts online.

Yet when Gupta learned about the concept of “vanity metrics”, he abruptly stopped tracking his reading. In marketing, a vanity metric is a number that looks good but ultimately doesn’t teach you anything actionable or can even be easily manipulated – a high number of likes on Facebook, for example. "I realised that counting the number of books feels good, it looks good, but it’s not that beneficial,” Gupta says. He started reading slowly and now says he engages with works more deeply. “It’s okay if I read one book in like two months but at least I read it properly."

People’s reasons for starting (and stopping) book counting are undoubtedly individualistic – 20 years after Nutley participated in her school’s MS readathon, she was diagnosed with MS herself and consequently decided she wanted to read a million pages before she turned 50. Dubliner Cooke was partially motivated to post about his 100-book milestone because of the pandemic – it "was such an odd year" and he wanted "something to show for it". Yet book counting also fits into a wider 21st-century trend of “self-tracking”.

Deborah Lupton is a sociology professor at the University of New South Wales and author of The Quantified Self. She documents how technology now allows people to understand themselves in unprecedent ways: a single watch can monitor our calories, heartbeat, and sleep quality. 

A “lifelong keen reader of literary fiction”, Lupton herself doesn’t personally see the point of book counting, but she says people can benefit from tracking themselves if they enjoy it and are able to meet their goals. "If it becomes a bit more of an obsession or people become disappointed or frustrated, or even guilty about not meeting goals, it is not as positive an experience," she notes.

One two-month-old Reddit thread entitled "Why do people seem to be so obsessed with how many books they’ve read?" nicely illustrates Lupton’s point. The most popular of all the 147 replies says, "It gives me a goal", but scroll a little further and you’ll see some messier truths. "If I set too high a goal I tend to get over obsessed during the year to beat it,” one Redditor wrote, "Last year I ‘cheated’ by reading a lot of novellas in order to make my goal."

There is a Word document on my desktop that lists every book I’ve read since 2014. I started it because I found myself forgetting what I’d read, but over time the list motivated me to read more and more. It’s fun to look back over the fluctuations (why is my 2017 count only a third of 2015’s?) and I won’t deny I feel good if I manage to best the previous year. Although I have no compulsion to share my count on social media, that might be because I’ve never hit triple figures.

In turn, Dimitre’s nine-year-old notebook is an unassuming but oddly enchanting object, the words “Books read 2012 – ” scrawled in blue biro on its front. Nutley’s bullet journal, she says, "is honestly a mess and it looks horrible", so while her count is often public, the way she counts remains intensely private. Lecturer King sends me the link to his own Goodreads account.

All of these records are deceptively simple: at first glance, they’re just numbers and book titles on a page. Yet each secretly reflects their reader’s ups and downs – when they lost a job, when they worked too hard, when they sought solace in nostalgic reads, when there was a global pandemic – so you might say they contain a life story, too.

What did you think of this article? Let us know by emailing us at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

Images: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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