Over the past several years, we book lovers have endured quite a bit. First there were the rainbow-hued shelves, (dis)organized by color, aesthetically pleasing but mayhem for anyone desperately hunting for one of Meg Wolitzer’s kaleidoscopically spined books. Then came the backlash to that biblio-psychedelia: books shelved spine-in, with the Scandi modern sensibility reigning supreme across a field of tawny pages, unbroken in their neutral uniformity and utterly useless as texts that one might, you know, pick up and read. (I once encountered a woman in Domino magazine who covered all her books with kraft paper and then elegantly scrawled the titles on the sides. God bless the childless.)
Books have always been art objects as well as social indicators (don’t even try to tell me that you don’t consider what dinner-party guests might think of your Sophie Kinsella collection). A hundred and fifty years ago a gold-leaf-imprinted atlas with hand-drawn pages could cement a Manchester mill owner’s status as a citizen of the world. Financier J.P. Morgan didn’t build his $1.2 million library (and that’s in 1906 dollars) because he needed a tapestried, two-story reading room with a muraled rotunda. Properly stocked libraries are still so necessary to maintain an aura of the public intellectual that a near-billionaire once confessed to me that he’d hired the Strand to populate his sparse shelves with smart titles.
On Instagram, the siren call of books-as-props has always been hard to resist (I admit that I’ve fallen for it, too, gourds and all). How else can you prove to your followers not only that you’ve got a great eye but that your gaze also runs deep? “Travel influencers” (these are people paid to stay at luxury hotels and take pictures of themselves lounging, just fyi) park themselves in front of spiraling staircases in grand wood-paneled European libraries, eyes languidly scanning the sea of books before them, taking in the grandeur like the Lady of Shalott. And you’ve certainly seen the favorite layout of sexy bookish homebodies everywhere: camera pointed directly down at tousled sheets, a book flipped over as if set down for just a moment, a cup of steaming coffee set to one side, wool-sock-clad feet in the frame but not a hint of pants. They’re reading, but suggestively.
There’s a long and storied history of people using books as props in their portraits; the array of goods assembled once telegraphed the ideals and accomplishments of the sitter. In Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors, two diplomats stand on either side of a shelf of astronomical and navigational instruments, representations of their journeys. There are also two books — a work of arithmetic and a Lutheran hymnal, meant to bolster their reputations as men of God and science. The famous full-body portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart shows the first president holding a sword but standing next to a quill and rolled-up papers — a man willing to take action, but nevertheless dedicated to the law undergirding revolution. There’s a reason why, centuries later, nearly every casual, desk-leaning photo of an author includes their bursting bookshelves in the background; we’re a vain, affected bunch, we book people. We want you to see our learning indulgently spilling out behind us.
But now, in the late stage of Intagram capitalism, there’s a new specter of book porn haunting my feed. Ladies are draping their bodies across a swath of opened books like some sort of Abrahamic sacrifice to the gods of paper and ink. They’re setting up elaborate spreads of black-and-white pages — turning them into wallpaper, essentially — and then modeling their upturned, painted hands or fanning out their long hair, as if in simultaneous flirtation and adoration. It’s a thing.
It started with smartly composed little flat lays — you know, objects arranged into cozy little scenes of domesticity that bear no resemblance to real-life moments but nonetheless serve as emblems of what it means to be happy at home. A mug of coffee on a table (always; nobody on Instagram goes anywhere without a mug of goddamn coffee); a sprinkling of seasonally appropriate flower heads or gourds or holly; perhaps some baker’s twine slithering into the frame; a lightly nibbled croissant, and a vintage book of British wildflowers. It’s charming! And homey! And way better-looking than the mess of kids’ schoolbooks and crusted pizza sauce and an orphaned earring that cover most of our kitchen tables.
And behind it all: books, functioning lately more as backdrops than props. Though still tokens of intellectual yearning, they’ve now been completely anonymized. The page-out Scandi aesthetic has been taken to its logical, denatured extreme. They could be any books — which is sweetly democratic in a way, but also oddly anti-intellectual for supposed bibliophiles, who are presumed to bicker passionately over merits of particular genres and titles.
This is a silly thing to get hung up on, I know, but what bugs me about these pictures is how devoid they are of any engagement with what books really do: For instance, they consist of words which, in relationship to each other, mean something. These photos are not inviting you in to enjoy or critique or loathe or interrogate the books. They’re not even telling you the titles of books. Novels and histories and essay collections and treatises are just vehicles for style, unidentifiable bits of black ink that I’m secretly hoping rubs off on these ’grammers’ faces after they spend 25 minutes in uncomfortable poses, their brunette manes artfully obscuring the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Mary Higgins Clark or Beatrix Potter or any of the other writers whose work has now basically become a Literary Filter.
Because they aren’t really books, you see, they’re suggestions of books, hints of how utterly devoted the Instagrammer is to her literary pursuits. I can’t pick just one book, the photos scream, and instead I shall lay myself prostrate across their textured pages to meld my body with their words, for I am a person of the mind! They’re just another object, shorn of meaning and sometimes of binding, rearranged to show that their possessors’ lives are prettier, more whimsical, more creative than yours. These people are beautiful literary hermits, dammit, Brontë sisters wandering the wild moors of the inside of your iPhone, seekers of beauty and truth and a shit ton of unearned likes.