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8 February 2024

On social media, books are trendy. Is reading?

On TikTok and Instagram, influencers turn to books not as great literature, but as set dressing.

By Sarah Manavis

What makes a book worth buying? The cover, the blurb, a recommendation from a friend? It could be seeing it advertised enough times on a train station wall – or, these days, finding it praised by someone you follow online. The real reason, though, is there’s almost always something that makes it sound worth reading: that it’s pacey, it’s eye-opening, it’s written by someone acclaimed. That it’s good enough to keep you off your phone.

Log on to Instagram or TikTok today, however, and you will find that books – and even more specifically, reading – are not primarily seen as a form of art, or even as entertainment, but as a trend-driven accessory. Online, posts featuring stacks of trendy books with colourful covers go viral not because of the quality of the literature – or even to promote reading itself – but because it conveys an increasingly fashionable, pseudo-intellectual aesthetic. On TikTok, books aren’t best read, but simply best seen. 

Over the past few months, this has manifested in a variety of trends popularised on TikTok. “Bookshelf wealth”, where people display curated personal libraries to fit an upmarket, “quiet luxury” aesthetic has just under four billion views on the app; “LibraryTok”, in which people film themselves at libraries, has 3.6 billion. While some young people creating this content appear to use the library for its actual purpose – to borrow books – for many, libraries are used simply as a backdrop, where physical books are viewed as “props” for lifestyle and fashion videos (as some book and fashion influencers have noted, this is a much cheaper alternative to buying books to pose in front of at home).

This content sits as a part of BookTok, the section of TikTok largely dedicated to promoting and discussing commercial fiction, especially romance and fantasy, which has become a major boon for the publishing industry in the last four years. Videos that have traditionally sat under the BookTok umbrella have focused on the content of popular novels. But even these are inherently performative: certain books dominate lists as their pre-existing popularity makes the post more watchable and shareable, and videos tend to follow a strict visual formula. On the app, you’ll find countless users bragging about having read more than 35 books in January: the quality of any individual book is less important than demonstrating yourself to be a voracious “reader”.

These trends align with a wider cultural move that sees reading – and books perceived to be high-brow – as cool. In 2021, there was a boom of book clubs led by celebrities, such as the models Kaia Gerber and Emily Ratajkowski focusing on literary fiction (Dua Lipa launched her own last year). Fashion brands have started putting on literary events, such as Prada and Ralph Lauren (with the National Book Award winner Ibram X Kendi appearing in campaigns for the latter). Viral content from the trendiest influencers now features B-roll and backdrops featuring the covers of Annie Ernaux, Rachel Cusk and Ottessa Moshfegh novels. But are these influencers really interested in the books? Perhaps not all. In early 2022, T Magazine published a story on the “notorious celebrity book stylist”: an anonymous figure helping to select chic novels and essay collections for supermodels, influencers and young actors lacking their own literary tastes, so that they might be photographed clutching an appropriately chic novel.

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The commodification of intellect through books is nothing new – nor is social posturing through the books you own and what you’re reading. (Publishing has also long prioritised the titles they believe are most profitable over the ones they think are best.) But this trend, accelerated by social media, is uniquely unapologetic about the way it rubber-stamps the idea of books as an accessory, rather than an art. This could result in publishers investing less effort in seeking out books that are exceptional: all they would really need to be is feed-friendly. 

It’s indicative of how social media trends often function in young people’s lives – not as a lifestyle change or a real hobby, but as a fleeting, materialistic aesthetic. In chasing certain looks online and suggesting they reflect who we are, we don’t just lose sight of what matters but we lose sight of our real selves. This way of living – and performing for a perceived audience – isn’t just bad for fiction, but bad for people too.

Of course, there will be some people who find a new love of reading as a result of trends they’ve seen online. There may even be some who are now regular patrons of their local library or independent bookshop after seeing a fashion influencer filming at the New York Public Library or an Instagrammer posing in front of a stylised bookshelf. But for the most part, social media turns to books not as great literature but as set dressing. It may popularise the performance of reading – but will do little for our literary culture.

[See also: Thomas Hardy’s life of desire]

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