Instagram Made Me Read It
Harry Edmundson discusses the relationship between social media influences and literature and the online trend of reading.
Instagram is an influencer. The app is a cultural spotlight for the latest reads and bookshelf must-haves that has made it as simple as possible to share an afternoon of isolated reading and recent purchases. Cultural zeitgeist Normal People experienced its meteoric rise due to the endless celebrity endorsements for Sally Rooney’s bestseller novel via Instagram posts. The immense popularity that resulted for Normal People is intertwined with public praise on Instagram posing readers the question of whether they were even reading Normal People if they neglected to update the Insta-sphere.
But what does this do to literary culture when it becomes a trend to be seen reading certain major bestsellers such as Normal People?
“we have become so obsessed by image in our addiction to self-presentation on social media that to be a ‘book person’ in itself is to be seen with privileges and cultural capital that connote to levels of worth and desirability in society”
Rooney herself looks from a Marxist point of view at the intersection between social media and books, which turns literature capable of sparking debate and sharing new perspectives into something superficial – able to achieve little except re-shaping public perception around those posting. Simply, as Rooney says, oftentimes literature is reduced to “beautiful items that you can fill your shelves with [so that you can] become a sort of book person”. In this vain, we have become so obsessed by image in our addiction to self-presentation on social media that to be a ‘book person’ in itself is to be seen with privileges and cultural capital that connote to levels of worth and desirability in society – and it all stems from how cute our colour-coordinated shelves look in a 4×4 picture on an app.
I am not immune to this culture of shareability and trend-hopping, but I hope to try and approach this new cultural era with some nuance as Instagram isn’t always the grim reaper of culture it may appear to be.
“The increased visibility of books and of reading is one that is instrumental to developing greater understandings of global perspectives whilst simultaneously keeping the book industry alive and thriving – Instagram allows such accomplishment.”
‘#Bookstagram’ and bookish Instagram accounts have over 44m followers which shows huge potential for publishers when marketing new releases. These accounts take part in, and host, ‘read-a-thons’ that highlight a range of new literature from marginalised communities, and therefore promoting new voices in the process. These events are made possible through Instagram, allowing literary discourse where previously it may have been exclusive to book clubs or elite institutions – with social media, barriers to entry are reduced. The increased visibility of books and of reading is one that is instrumental to developing greater understandings of global perspectives whilst simultaneously keeping the book industry alive and thriving – Instagram allows such accomplishment.
In a global pandemic, Instagram can connect readers and showcase new stories and views whilst promoting new writers like Sally Rooney. However, if we are not careful then we run the risk of judging books by their photogenic capabilities and losing a focus on discussion in favour of desperately trying to appear on-trend to be seen with increased cultural capital. I have discovered some of my favourite authors and been able to stay updated with the latest in the publishing world via Instagram, this is when it works at its best. At worst, Instagram’s relationship with literary culture disobeys the first rule of reading, not to judge a book by its cover – and in turn we fail its 2020 revision: not to judge a person by their Insta-bookshelf.