Erin Stewart
November 16, 2016 7:00 am

I grew up with an illustrious bookshelf. Not normally a person which much of an eye for detail, my books were beautifully organized, alphabetized by author. Most of my modest pocket money went to acquiring more of them. The best weekends were the ones when my family took me to the local market, and I could hand over two dollars and get back four musty, second-hand books. I read them over the course of a day (something I still do if I’m allotted enough time and the right book) and I was always hungry for more.

I had friends who liked to read as well, but most of them were interested in different genres — and we were careful not to speak too loudly about books at school. It seemed like, for most kids — at least before and after the height of the Harry Potter craze — reading was something you did because adults made you do it.

It’s a lonely way to live. Not while reading, of course. The act of reading is never lonely. When I read, I felt like the authors imparted whispered secrets into my ears inside of the comforting, fictional world I could inhabit. But every book must end. And then what?

If there’s nobody to talk to about your shared experience of reading the book, it’s like being ripped away from that fictional world. And it’s hard, especially if you’re still learning, to try to take meaning out of it by yourself.

I was surrounded by people who exchanged recommendations, people who thought carefully about books, people who wrote. Mostly, this was a breath of fresh air, but there was a downside to this culture as well. Sometimes, talking about books seemed more like signalling that you’re a smart, well-read, thoughtful person – rather than expressing a genuine desire to relate through our shared pop cultural experiences.

Conversations were often about what was wrong with a book, rather than how a book made us feel – and how books make me feel is my primary reason for reading them in the first place. Looking critically at books is definitely important, and being able to engage this way was a valuable experience. I learned more, but I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to people, even though we did have a mutual love of books.

Strangely though, it wasn’t high intellectual society that made me fully embrace my inner bookworm. It was Instagram.

Some of the best hashtags for talking about books are: #bookstagram #bookworm #booklover #bookish #bookstore and so on.

What you find cataloged under these tags are images created by people who, like me, are obsessed with books and reading. The fact that these images are part of their social media accounts – one of the main ways in which people of our generation communicate with each other – is no small thing for me. A picture on Instagram is a representation of how your life looks (or how you’d like it to look). It’s endearing to see that, for so many people, books are part of that image of daily life.

Reading is part of my daily life. The books that I’m reading sit on my bedside table. I might read them over a cup of coffee or a bowl of strawberries. I go in and out of a book over days or even weeks when the rest of my life keeps moving. Images of books, cropped into a square, with reduced saturation and a pretty filter, uncannily goes towards capturing that – the way that reading feels.

Reading gives me pause to think, but I do it because it affects me and my life personally. It makes me feel engaged. It helps me reflect on my life and my values. Spontaneously sharing this experience with my followers has been affirming. It’s a part of my private life which has become not just acceptable, but actively ‘liked’ in public.

It’s reasonable to criticise Instagram for being too aesthetically-driven at times. It does literally judge books by their covers, in that images usually convey little more than that.

And that’s changed, for the better, the way I think of myself as a reader.

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