The ‘BookTok’ phenomenon

Features Pink

Image description: a large wooden book case with many books

As a French student at Oxford, I do a lot of reading, whether it be entire volumes of poetry, chunky novels, philosophical texts or the “Cambridge Companion to __” when the next essay crisis is just around the corner. Even in between terms and during summer holidays I find myself trying to complete the massive reading lists, which is usually fun, since I actually like my course. But I’m sure a lot of literature and language students will agree when I say that sometimes we just need something different, something that is not Marcel Proust describing a roof in the sunlight for seven volumes straight (not to call him straight or complain about his books, his descriptions are impeccable).

So, one day, it must have been sometime earlier this year, I found myself on TikTok (when I was definitely not procrastinating but merely taking a break from psychologically analysing Marcel’s characters in Combray for an essay), and stumbled across this phenomenon called “BookTok”.

As many of you probably already know, BookTok is a niche on TikTok where people show what books they are currently reading, recommend their favourites or record themselves having mental breakdowns to the song “Achilles, Come Down”. As always on TikTok, if something blows up, suddenly everyone is buying it. So, there are certain BookTok favourites that every true BookToker must have read at least once. The good news is that most of these books are also available on Audible (or sometimes even YouTube) in several languages for anyone with special requirements, with a busy schedule – as all of us Oxford students do – or whose attention span has been ruined by social media.

BookTok is a niche on TikTok where people show what books they are currently reading, recommend their favourites or record themselves having mental breakdowns to the song “Achilles, Come Down”.

Either way, as soon as I discovered BookTok, I went even further down the rabbit hole and discovered something even better: gay BookTok. When I was younger, I loved fantasy novels and young adult fiction but one of the reasons why I eventually stopped reading them was that I rarely found anything with good queer representation. When I walk into a bookshop today, even in my rather small hometown in Germany, it warms my heart to see queer romance novels by queer authors on the best seller shelves.

Another fun thing about BookTok is that even the authors themselves sometimes have accounts to interact with us readers, share memes or show the writing process behind their stories. Two of my favourite queer people on there must be the bestselling authors Casey McQuiston (any pronouns), whose books I will talk about in just a second and Xiran Jay Zhao (they/them). Seeing these young queer creators who present themselves as regular non-book writing people succeed is incredibly encouraging for any LGBTQ+ person looking into being part of the industry one day.

After discovering that side of TikTok, of course I had to dive right in and see what the hype is all about. So, if you were wondering whether ‘The Song of Achilles’, ‘They Both Die at the End’, ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ and ‘One Last Stop’ are worth your time, keep reading!

If you were wondering whether ‘The Song of Achilles’, ‘They Both Die at the End’, ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ and ‘One Last Stop’ are worth your time, keep reading!

For those of you who picked up on it earlier, “Achilles, Come Down” is indeed what people listen to after finishing Madeleine Miller’s ‘Song of Achilles’, and whether there is a recording of me crying to the song somewhere on my phone is between me and the Gods… and I don’t just mean any Gods: if you were into Greek mythology as a child, binge-read the entire Percy Jackson series as a teenager, and nowadays watch sad films to cry yourself to sleep, this book is for you! Sometimes called a fanfiction of the Iliad, this book follows Achilles’ childhood friend Patroclus, starting with the pair’s first encounter and retells the story of the Trojan war. From my own experience I can say that no prior knowledge of mythology or the Iliad is necessary to enjoy this read but I would encourage everyone to discuss it with their favourite queer classics student over some coffee for more sadness and background information on the characters.

After this incredibly sad read I was looking for something more light-hearted, so naturally I picked up a book titled ‘They Both Die at the End’. If you enjoy watching Black Mirror episodes and are looking for some light romance without any sexual content at all, Adam Silvera’s queer take on death and the meaning of life is perfect for you. I also found that it was a very easy and quick read, even in the middle of term. In a world where you get notified on the day you die, Mateo and Rufus find each other on an app that is meant to help you find a last friend to spend your last day on earth with – and don’t worry, I’m not going spoil the ending for you, if you want to find out whether they really die at the end you will have to read it yourself. Once you do finish it, reread the first page (trust me, just do it), follow Rufus on Instagram (but do avoid it before, as there will be spoilers) and get ready for HBO’s upcoming mini-series based on this book!

If you have ever been on BookTok, even just for 15 seconds, there is one book that you really cannot escape: Casey McQuiston’s ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’. I promise, this one only made me cry from happiness, so it is a safe go if you do not enjoy reading angsty books. I was sceptical whether this would live up to the hype, but it did not disappoint! After an unfortunate incident at a royal wedding, Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the first female President of the United States, is forced to pretend to be friends with his rival, Prince Henry of England, to not let the scandal interfere with his mother’s re-election campaign. Although it is quite a lot in terms of sexual content, I was told by a friend that it is actually still an enjoyable read even if you skip those passages. If you loved ‘Young Royals’, enjoy watching romcoms, are looking for classic Gen Z humour based on pop culture references, and like keeping up with celebrities and their relationships – definitely give it a go.

I’m going to be honest. Once I finished ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ I had enough self-control for about half an hour before I bought Casey McQuiston’s more recent work and my first ever wlw romance novel: ‘One Last Stop’. If you chose to save Chloe at the end of ‘Life Is Strange’, this book was written for you. When August moves to New York she has already come to terms with the fact that true love is just not for her and that she will probably die alone. That is until she bumps into the mysterious Jane on the subway and has a crush on her immediately – a crush that she was never supposed to have, as Jane turns out to be a time-traveling girl from the 70s. On her quest to help her love interest travel back to her own time, August is joined by a beautiful group of queer people. So, this book is packed with amazing representation of lesbian, bisexual, gay and trans people, again lots of Gen Z humour and an incredible love story that defies the laws of time. Do bring tissues for this one though, you will need them!

Not only has it reignited my love for young adult fiction and queer romance, but it also introduced me to an amazing community of people who share their excitement over literature.

In the end, I am incredibly happy to have stumbled across BookTok. Not only has it reignited my love for young adult fiction and queer romance, but it also introduced me to an amazing community of people who share their excitement over literature. Seriously, give it a go – there must be one book out there for everyone. Whether I still ended up finishing my essay on Proust without a deadline extension, however, is a story for another day.

Image credit: “Wall of Books” by benuski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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