It’s easy to be snarky toward supermodels in slouchy-chic pantsuits toting books. “Those Hadid sisters are lit(erary)!” declared the New York Post. It seized on the detail that Bella had even used King’s novel “as a shield against paparazzi at Charles de Gaulle airport during Paris Fashion Week.” (As one does. I am often seen carrying a book, and so far I too have eluded the paparazzi.)
While the Hadid sisters have not, as far as I know, shared their insights about Camus or King, they have plenty of high-profile company in combining books and Instagram. Other celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Emma Watson and Reese Witherspoon, run book clubs and regularly post shots of themselves engrossed in some novel or memoir. These posts make reading look both cozy and chic, an activity best done with polished toes, in a slouchy yet stylish sweater, on a plush piece of furniture, in front of a fireplace and/or in the company of a highly Instagrammable dog. Some of these posts promote professional or political causes. Witherspoon, for instance, runs a production company and sometimes options books for vehicles she might star in. Watson, a well-known activist as well as actress, highlights books with feminist messages.
Even on the most superficial level, though, what’s so bad about accessorizing with books? It’s proof that, in the iPhone age, the codex retains a cachet even a fashion superstar might covet. Celebrities could do far worse than declare “I #amreading!” to a world that needs more of the empathy and insight books can inspire. If the Hadid sisters being photographed with novels in hand motivates some of their combined 70 million-plus Instagram followers to rush to the local indie bookstore or library in search of a good read, more social-media power to them.
Whatever motivates them, these photos signal that beauty and brains go together like a Vuitton bag and a King thriller — combinations that American culture trains us to be surprised by and yet keeps serving up. Images like Eve Arnold’s iconic 1955 photo of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” at a playground send a message to viewers predisposed to think of intellectuals as unglamorous: Bombshells read books, too.
Monroe’s personal library, auctioned by Christie’s in 1999, featured more than 400 titles, “the books of a well-read and inquiring mind,” according to the auction catalogue. Like Gigi Hadid, Monroe owned a copy of “The Stranger,” the little black dress of books, never out of fashion. The Christie’s catalogue points out that many of the books have pencil marks and annotations in them. Absent a reading diary, it’s hard to know what Monroe really made of Camus’ classic, or “Ulysses,” or “The Great Gatsby,” “Invisible Man,” “On the Road” or the other serious books in her library. Reading remains a private act, no matter how many times it’s photographed or Instagrammed.
Books, however, are increasingly designed to show a public face, especially on social media. The publishing industry counts on platforms such as Instagram to help spread the word about this season’s must-read novel or nonfiction blockbuster. “Instagram is a major tool now in ginning up excitement that we used to see in print magazines,” author and indie-bookstore owner Emma Straub told Vulture magazine earlier this year.
It’s no wonder that publishers, as Vulture reported, design covers that scream “Share me on social media!” Short titles, bright colors and blocky graphics inspire more posts tagged #amreading (1,461,994 posts and counting) and #bookstagram, a hashtag that graces more than 26 million posts as of this writing.
Some bibliophiles take their ink-on-paper fetish a little too far online. “Ladies are draping their bodies across a swath of opened books like some sort of Abrahamic sacrifice to the gods of paper and ink,” Hillary Kelly wrote in Vulture last year, identifying one of the more unsettling bookish fads to sweep Instagram.
I love my books but I have never draped myself across them, on- or offline. But I confess that I have posted wannabe artful shots of my to-be-read pile, or a #catsofinstagram pic of my cat Darcy (using the not-yet-viral hashtag #darcyreads) next to a book with intellectual cred. That said, I do heartily recommend Emily Wilson’s recent translation of “The Odyssey,” which makes both a good read and a fine #bookstagram post, whether or not you include a cat.
Jennifer Howard, a writer and editor based in Washington, is at work on a history of clutter. Follow her on Twitter @JenHoward.
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