“Often industry leaders quote books and casually ask if you have read them. What if I haven’t? Am I knowledgeable still? Or even relevant?” These fears keep gnawing at Bengaluru-based Dhiman, who works as a product head at transport company. Forty-year-old Prashant Singh read as many books as his age last year. He has read 12 since January this year. “Yet, I fear someone will tell me they are reading a book I haven’t read, and which seems better than what I am reading at the moment,” says the Noida-based senior executive from Paytm.
This FOMO, or the fear of missing out, on books is real and can be found in several peers, he adds. It manifests in different ways.
Anuya Jakatdar, 33, cofounder of book-discovery platform Books on Toast, fears what she’s reading is not “literary” enough. That the stuff she enjoys reading is not winning any awards. She finds the Instagram timeline of bibliophiles, who read 300-400 books a year, intimidating.
These fears exacerbate for some of them — like Dhiman and Singh — when they give in to the temptation of binge-watching content online, which eats into their reading time. “After a long day at work, it is always easier to go home and watch Netflix than pick up a book,” says Dhiman.
In the past, studies conducted by the likes of the American Time Use Survey have established a correlation between the explosion in TV viewing and the decline of reading culture in countries like the US and the Netherlands, among others. There seems to be no comprehensive study on the impact of binge-watching on reading habits as yet. So far, all we have is anecdotal evidence.
Anuj Gosalia, CEO of content company Terribly Tiny Tales, says he has been trying to get back to his reading habit. “But I find myself prioritising Netflix often. It’s easy to forget the value of a book in front of the sensory experience the former offers,” says the 32-year-old from Mumbai. With social media platforms increasing their focus on videos, bingewatching isn’t limited to OTT players. On a recent holiday, Singh from Paytm kept watching videos on TikTok instead of reading the books he had brought along. As a result, the count of books in Singh’s bought-but-never-read shelf is going up. “If earlier I was reading 80% of the books I bought, now it is 60%,” he says. “I feel there’s a bigger FOMO about ownership of books than about consumption.”
The Japanese have a term for this phenomenon of buying books and not reading them — tsundoku. In 2007, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb used “antilibrary” to refer to a collection of unread books. He was inspired by an Umberto Eco essay titled “How to Justify a Private Library”.
The world over, it would seem, people are aiming to read more and more. But, in effect, they are reading fewer books. The data available on Goodreads, the world’s largest social network for book readers, points to this as well. Goodreads allows users to set up a reading challenge every year. You can start a challenge any time during the year and set a reading goal according to the number of months left. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of participants taking the challenge went up by 40% — from 3 million to 4.2 million. The number of books pledged to be read went from 141 million in 2016 to a whopping 259 million in 2018, clocking an 84% hike. However, the percentage of books finished, which soared from 27.7% to 31.8% between 2016 and 2017, came down to 21.6% at the end of last year. Suzanne Skyvara, VP, communications, Goodreads, says the platform sees it as a win even when people accomplish only 50% or 75% of their goals. “It means the challenge is helping them to read more books. After all, if you set out to lose 20 pounds of weight and end up losing only 15 pounds, you still feel good.” But if you are just growing your antilibrary, you don’t feel so good.
Sajith Pai, director at Blume Ventures, has close to 200 books in his antilibrary right now. At Rs 500 a book on average, this amounts to `1 lakh spent on books bought but never read. “I need to stop buying more books,” he says. The 40-year-old Delhi-based venture capitalist has had to “sadly sacrifice Netflix and Amazon Prime” to make time for books. “I have only watched Game of Thrones, Sacred Games and Made in Heaven,” he says. To deal with his antilibrary, Pai draws inspiration from prominent entrepreneurs and bibliophiles of the Silicon Valley — like Naval Ravikant (of AngelList) and Patrick Collison (of fintech company Stripe). “They advise you to start reading a book from the middle and if you find it interesting, read it from the beginning. If not, give it away.” Pai knows there’s no point in holding on to the wish of completing every book he buys. Instead, he reads author interviews and listens to podcasts of business books to reduce the number of titles bought in that genre.
This antilibrary cleanse — which, shockingly, resembles the KonMari route of de-cluttering your cupboards and closets by asking yourself “Does this (item) spark joy?” — doesn’t work for everyone. At a readers’ getaway recently, Sriti Jha, a TV actor, met a girl who keeps something called an “unread-books jar”.
“She picks a chit to decide which book to read from the lot.”
FOMO about reading is real for Jha, too. “I see people finishing a book in two days while I struggle to finish two in a month. I have reading slumps quite often and resort to watching shows instead.” Between her shoots, Jha has found the time to read through her ears. “When I sit for make-up on the set, I listen to audio books,” she says. She picked up Virginia Woolf ’s To The Lighthouse minutes before speaking to ET Magazine.
Even when she’s acting, the English literature graduate harks back to her favourite books to better her craft. “When I have to react to heartbreaking news in a scene, I often think of lines from Harry Potter that describe a similar feeling.”
More Hacks Than You Can Bookmark
Like Pai and Jha, many who suffer from FOMO about reading books are devising hacks to sustain their reading habit. Gosalia of Terribly Tiny Tales looks at books like the series he binge-watches. “Kindle has a scroll feature that makes a book seem like a really long long-form article. It also shows you the time left to finish a book. So, when I’m one and a half hours away from finishing a book, the thought that I can finish a whole book in the time I would spend on watching two episodes of a show makes reading a lot less intimidating for me.” The feeling of finishing a good book is a lot stronger than that of finishing a good series, he adds.
For Kunal Bahl, cofounder of, compartmentalising helps. “Outside of a few documentaries, much of what is available on the likes of Netflix is fictional content, albeit entertaining and addictive.” Over a period of time, Bahl has wired himself to look to Netflix for “fiction-oriented cravings” and to books for nonfiction. “I read as much as I can when I can, witho
ut worrying about when I can start the next one,” he says.
Himanshu Khanna, founder of design and tech company Sparklin, has divided his time between books and binge-watching on the basis of the level of attentiveness required for each. Khanna prefers reading early in the morning or in the evening, and binge-watches for a couple of hours before going to bed. He has also shifted from Kindle to paperbacks so that “finishing each book feels like doing something incremental”.
Smriti Sant, 28, has rationed the number of series she binge-watches. She runs an Instagram account called @Sant.Reads dedicated to readers. Besides, she religiously follows the two-bookmark method for reading. “So when I resume reading from page 50, I’ll keep a bookmark on the 70th page. As soon as I hit that, it feels like a small achievement and inspires me to read 10 more pages.”
Mumbai-based Vivek Tejuja, 35, known in the online readers’ community as prolific, finishes over 300 books a year. He feels a lot of people are ashamed of choosing Netflix over books because somehow it is ingrained in their minds that watching TV is bad. “Watching content is educative too,” he says. “I watch Netflix, but I pick a series that doesn’t take much time.”
For Sharin Bhatti, the 36-year-old cofounder of Books on Toast, watching online content became a means to rediscover good books. After watching the mini-series Sharp Objects ontwo months ago, Bhatti revisited the debut novel by Gillian Flynn it was based on. “I had read the book once but didn’t like it. After watching the show, I read it again. The show was so well-made it made me visualise the book better,” she says. FOMO can be positive if it makes you discover better books to read, she adds.
However, FOMO shouldn’t drive you to apps that give you the executive summary of a book, says Mumbai-based author Kiran Manral.
There are quite a few in the market, like Blinkist for non-fiction. You might as well read a long-form article on a subject instead, she reasons: “Summary takes away the pleasure of reading.” Manral is also not entirely in favour of reading challenges that put a lot of pressure on people when everyone has a different pace of reading. It’s for the same reason that Bhatti and Jakatdar have reduced the number of books they recommend on theirchannel Books on Toast. In the beginning, they would talk about 20-odd books in one video. Some viewers found it intimidating. Now, Bhatti and Jakatdar try to bring down the recommendations to three books each per video.
Goodreads’ Skyvara says members who enter the reading challenge read more books than those who don’t. In Gosalia’s case, it’s quite the opposite. Three years ago, he took up the challenge to read 36 books in a year but read only 3. The following year, he reduced the aim to 24 and managed to read 7. “This year I didn’t make any vocal commitment and have read 14 books already.” FOMO about reading books will be a constant, he says, but “I’m happy that at least I’m not not-reading.” He recently finished the first book in the Harry Potter series and knows there are six more.
“I’ll take a flight one of these days to go on a Potter vacation.” For Bhatti of Books on Toast, the fear of missing a flight is potentially bigger than the FOMO about books. “I almost missed a flight once because I was engrossed in a book,” she says.