Every other Tuesday in StoriedK. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.

It’s March! And for some people in the corners of social media who blog about books, review books, or take pictures of books for Instagram (known as bookstagrammers), that means #middlegrademarch. Or, to put it another way, it’s a time when book reviewers, enthusiasts, and authors promote Middle Grade literature for social media exposure. Hopefully, too, they are reading it as they encourage others to partake in themed reading challenges. But #middlegrademarch is just one of many social media book-themed months and challenges springing primarily from the sheer existence of social media and the opportunities it presents. The number of online book-reading challenges and themed reading months are legion, as a quick Google search will show you. For March 2020 alone, I found challenges including reading a book with a clever title, a self-help/how-to book, a popular Mulan retelling, and a book written by a female author.

Where do these reading challenges originate? Who decides March is for Middle Grade books, or any of the other themed challenges? Like most things dominated by Millennials (as month-themed social media reading challenges are), I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of them started as side-hustles for work-from-home moms or book bloggers—as marketing plans and ways to monetize hobbies and legitimate writing jobs alike. Speaking as a member of the demographic—the hustle is real, and when one is passionate about books anyhow, it’s easy and fun to dream up ways to make something potentially trend within your target audience. If the kickback is extra traffic to your website or blog, increased social likes, followers, and awareness, or possibly selling more of a product related to the reading challenge—all the better. 

A reading challenge can be just the pause we need to stop and consider which books in our collections contain truth and goodness—which are told in a beautiful way.

The possibility of monetization doesn’t make these online reading challenges a bad thing, however. In many ways, an online reading challenge can be a good thing for people drowning in excess—an excess that makes choice seem nearly impossible at times. Like scrolling Netflix, wondering if any of the hundreds of shows will really satisfy more than any of the others, our world has now become so saturated with book options that trying to figure out what to read next can feel overwhelming, especially for those of us who have massive collections of books. 

Some books we own just to own them; we don’t really intend to read them. We live in an age of superabundance of all sorts of stuff. The surprise popularity of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show Tidying up with Marie Kondo should tell us something about how much stuff Americans have—how much, quite frankly, we are drowning in it. In the thick of the Kondo-craze in 2019, however, people incorrectly attributed Kondo as saying we should own no more than thirty books. In response, the people of the internet went crazy. No more than thirty books? That’s insane! “Tidying up” was fine when it meant getting rid of an extra ironing board, but as soon as a meme began to circulate showing Kondo saying we should only own thirty books, everyone lost their minds. 

But she never said that, and like Kondo, I’m not saying that we should reduce our bookshelves to some arbitrary number. The internet responses to the very idea that we should maybe reduce our bookshelves highlighted our very real addiction to books—even books we have no intention of ever reading. Even books that may not be worth hanging onto. 

This is one way in which online reading challenges have value. They can both help us unclutter our shelves and keep them stocked with the sort of books worth collecting. These challenges appeal because so many of us have unread books sitting on our shelves. We have a superabundance of books and little idea of how to go about attacking our unread book stacks. Challenges like #middlegrademarch offer us a time to read certain titles, an online community with whom to read these books, and specific goals to meet. Most of us don’t need all the books on our shelves. It’s time to read them or give them away to others to enjoy. Or to use such a reading challenge to help us sift through the noise of all our books to find what is good, true, and beautiful. Then we will know what is worth keeping, worth sharing with others, or worth discarding. 

Online reading challenges can also help us fill a social gap that many adult readers feel—particularly women, and particularly Millennial-age women (speaking of these challenges as being driven by Millennial women). Statistically, Millennials are drowning in debt, which leads in turn to overworking and burnout. We may find time to read, but getting out to read and discuss books in person with friends might be a bridge too far when we’re working hard at two or more jobs to make ends meet and pay off debt. Social media has replaced many social functions that once took place out of the house. It’s easy and accessible, residing in the devices in our hands. Likewise, because of social media, online reading challenges can take the place of an in-person book club, functioning in many ways the same—as a coming together with people of similar interests to read books of a certain type at a particular time, even if everyone is not necessarily reading the same title. There is sameness and difference in online challenges—more freedom of choice alongside the guidance, accountability, and community of a book club. As such, these online reading challenges can help combat loneliness amongst a demographic of women often too burned out to do anything socially at all. 

So this month I’m reading Middle Grade, and I’m doing it because it’s #middlegrademarch. I have other reading goals throughout the year, most of them personal and unrelated to social media challenges or themes, but this month I’m thankful for the pause—the interruption from my regular reading stack—that directs my attention to these other books over here that are worthy of my attention, too. It’s an easy challenge for me because I love Middle Grade, and thanks to having children of a certain age, I have a house full of it. But in the mess and the noise and the excess of life, I rarely pause to go back to it these days. A reading challenge can be just the pause we need to stop and consider which books in our collections contain truth and goodness—which are told in a beautiful way. It can draw us together with people like us who are also seeking the same. And in the midst of burnout, it can help us draw a collective breath as it gives us an excuse to tidy up our excess and move forward with purpose.