The Issue With Bookstagram: Militant Opinions, Performative Activism and Faux Enthusiasm

Wednesday, July 29

By Ash Haslett Cuff


I’ve always been a fairly bookish person and while at school it didn’t cause me any trouble, it never really made me overwhelmingly popular. I stumbled across my first ‘Bookstagram’ at the age of twelve and was entranced. It was a place where books were revered and people openly obsessed over characters and authors and series, making me feel both validated and, ridiculously, cool. I would spend hours every month setting up and taking photos of books with various props and backgrounds, spending way too much money on candles and bookmarks to add to the ‘aesthetic’ I was so painstakingly trying to emulate. I saw the books that were popular and purchased those (sometimes against my better judgement), got involved in daily bookish photo challenges, counted down to release dates and stayed up all night participating in readathons.

However it wasn’t until the last year or so that I found this community to be limiting; the militant opinions, cancelled authors, performative activism and faux enthusiasm soon overrode the simple joy of rejoicing in books. So after five years I logged out of my bookstagram account for the last time and felt lighter and more content with my reading habits than I had for a long time. On the surface, bookstagram is pretty photos and people gushing about books and while that may sound idealistic and unproblematic, beneath the fairy-lit, candle scented surface lies the festering problems that soon overwhelmed the superficial joy for me.

The most prevalent books on Bookstagram are Young Adult Fantasy with new series coming into vogue every year or so as the old ones are either tossed aside for being ‘problematic’ or placed lovingly on the shelf to be turned over and photographed when feeling nostalgic. These books become insanely popular for a while until it becomes cool to dislike them because of lack of diversity, or the author once used a slur and then the community abandons them as quickly as they adopted them, eager for the next big thing. 

Firstly, I disagree with the mob mentality of cancellation that is so prevalent everywhere on the internet but especially in these bookish subcultures. As soon as a few people begin to speak out about a certain author in a negative way, the rest of the community are on them like vultures, condemning their books, turning up their noses at people who still read the author and eagerly looking for the next author to put on a temporary pedestal. I’m not saying authors should not be held accountable for their transgressions, but I think that this is a very narrow and ignorant way of dealing with the matter. I found that independent thought was becoming increasingly rare on this platform and that concerned me. The community was rife with white readers suddenly talking about how important diversity is to them because they don’t want to be called out for reading the same series over and over again because the cast is all white and the author said ‘retard’ in 2009. Suddenly Bookstagrammers all over are scrambling for the nearest Zadie Smith book in a desperate bid to appear sophisticated and ‘woke’ when really this reading of diverse books is a phase they’ll pass through when it stops trending on Twitter.  

Secondly, while I was on Bookstagram I felt like only a narrow percentage of books were cared about and discussed. Numbers don’t really matter but if you were so bold as to post photos of lesser known books, engagement would drop dramatically. This can quickly discourage people from talking about unpopular books as they try to keep their engagement up. The atmosphere isn’t conducive to discovering new authors or books and keeps readers in a bubble, afraid to branch out of their reading comfort zone. And if you aren’t discovering new material then what’s the point? While I was introduced to some genuinely good books as a result of my time in this niche, I believe they are outweighed by the time I spent pretending to gush over average books I felt indifferent about; The amount of mediocre YA fantasy I read as a result of bookstagram is slightly embarrassing. Maybe this is more me being a coward than anything else, but between the ages of twelve and sixteen I was so desperate to be liked that I faked it in order to feel accepted and like I was a part of the bigger culture. Since I logged out of that account I’ve begun to enjoy reading more than I have done in the past little while, not caring about how relevant the books I was reading were or how long it took me to finish them. I worry that young readers will find Bookstagram and get sucked in like I did, convincing themselves that fairytale retellings are the highest form of literature and not reading anything else. Believe it or not this is not a swipe at the YA genre. There are some great YA books out there and if you genuinely like reading about sixteen year olds and how much they struggle to fit in when you’re 24 with half a degree in English Literature then don’t let me stop you. 

Thirdly, bookstagram doesn’t really nurture creativity. If you look at the biggest accounts they are mostly photos of the same thing: White sheets, rustic wooden backdrops, fairy lights, mugs, candles and the same dozen or so books. The grids are scarily similar and while they do look nice, after a while the homogeneity becomes both cloying and boring. There are only so many times I can stomach seeing Donna Tartt’s The Secret History next to your French Press and black Moleskine. These photos aren’t being creative, they’re following a set pattern that has been tried and tested and will pass into a new phase after a few months. I didn’t feel like I was actually being creative with my photographs, I was just trying to mimic what I saw all around me and in the end it was more draining and stressful than anything else.

This isn’t me saying that all Bookstagrammers are unoriginal and that everyone should leave the community. I know that a lot of people do thrive there and it has introduced so many people to a love of reading which I absolutely encourage. This is just five years of frustration on an incredibly niche topic finally coming out in a semi-articulate way.

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