Shi: Eye of the Beholder

The culture of "#bookstagram" is damaging to the community's mission.

by Katie Shi | 1/17/19 2:00am

 

The bookstagram community has been credited by many with increasing the popularity and diversity of literature for a wider audience. When I first joined this online collective years ago, I loved the vibrant community of fellow readers from all over the world — ranging from places as diverse as the United States to Romania to Syria — and the discussions we had about what we read. For the unfamiliar, “bookstagram” is a term used to describe the book blogging community of Instagram. On this platform, users share pictures of their books using the eponymous hashtag. Common posts include book hauls (stacks of recent book purchases), to-be-read piles and current reads. Often, more popular bookstagram account users receive advance reading copies from publishers to promote ahead of publication date. 

The amount of work that gets put into a bookstagram photo can be astounding. A photo could feature one book or a stack of them, while coffee mugs, fairy lights and flowers often serve as common props. In some more elaborate photos, users stage themselves with their books — there are not only portraits of the user with their reading material, but also photos of books parallel to legs, the latest Penguin edition cradled in arms, or even, in some cases, the user’s entire body, curled up or spread-eagled next to rows of open pages in a kind of visual performance. The artistry of these photos is amazing — but how much does it contribute to the book community?

Over time, a popular bookstagram account often becomes less about what the person is reading and more about how carefully presented the photos are and how curated the account’s theme is. Many accounts, for instance, are based on a certain color, lighting or season (a winter versus autumn theme, for example). To gain a wider following on Instagram, a user must post “consistently,” at a rate from anywhere between once a week to once every few hours. There are monthly challenges where users post one book photo a day according to given prompts, and they often don’t explain why they chose those books beyond how they ostensibly fit the prompt (usually based on title or cover design). While these accounts are aesthetically appealing and in line with Instagram’s broader culture, they inherently go against the book community and against books in general, which are textual.

In the 1930s, the Nazi regime cared less about literature as a means of propaganda than they did about other forms of art such as films, painting and architecture. Since literature lacked a tangible aesthetic that they could exploit, it was ignored. Instagram has made the aestheticization of literature, or at least books, possible. The danger with focusing too much on aesthetics, however, is that it’s reductive. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of spending more time selecting and editing photos of books rather than reading the books themselves. Users often post books to read or books they’ve just started, only to post a picture of a different book immediately afterwards because it seems gauche to post more than one picture of the book that they’re reading. A few of the people I followed announced a hiatus from social media after feeling “burned out by bookstagram.” 

The problems with bookstagram are not because of the readers who use it, but because Instagram, a visual platform that relies heavily on aesthetics, is inherently incompatible with a genuine book community. Instagram does not accommodate people who read at slower paces, or those who don’t spend time staging their photos. It’s extremely difficult for users with popular bookstagram accounts (and therefore more followers) to continue appealing to a large audience while providing in-depth commentary on what they’ve read, simply because of the pace at which they must post. Relatively few readers can actively maintain the aesthetic of their account while still engaging in the more intimate discussions of the book community. 

“What this picture doesn’t show: today’s tears, dark circles, stress, unwashed hair, anxiety,” bookstagram user Laura Oosterbeek says in her caption for a post featuring Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. “I love instagram, and I love that I can choose what to post. But what you see is part of my story, not the whole story. @instagram is a carefully curated construct. Don’t forget.” Indeed, Instagram is all about creating the most flattering version of yourself and your narrative, even if that narrative is borderline fictitious. On Instagram, a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words; a picture can also mean absolutely nothing.