Did you read the book? It’s a question layered in excitement and guilt. “There’s a long history of loving books and collecting books, affiliating and identifying yourself through books,” said Jessica Pressman, associate professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University and author of Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia Univ.). “There is an urgency and a kind of intensity to that attachment and affiliation in a digital age.”
Bookishness describes a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot. “This is what I describe as creative acts that engage the physicality of the book within a digital culture, in modes that may be sentimental, fetishistic, radical,” Pressman said. It could mean anything from decorative pillows with quotes from Jane Austen or a studded designer jacket with Harry Potter’s face turned punk. Maybe a person decides to color-code their bookshelves, or maybe they embroider lines from poems. It’s all part of the phenomenon of bookishness.
Bookishness is a part of digital culture, but how is bookishness best reflected in readers and the publishing industry? “One of the biggest things for a single book can be a major celebrity posting about it on social media,” said Morgan Hoit, associate marketing manager of Avid Reader Press. From Oprah’s Book Club to Reese’s Book Club to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club Central, a book club with a major public figure’s stamp of approval has major effects both on sales and on the cultural response to a book.
“There’s something beautiful about a celebrity book club that allows us to imagine having a conversation with Oprah,” Pressman said. “Books are like imaginary spectacles for inventing ourselves and inventing relationships to real and imagined characters.”
The book club is just one aspect of the vibrant world of bookstagrammers, with its rich community of book lovers, boutique publishers, and celebrity accounts. “I think that what celebrities are doing is making something that feels like a force become less of a force,” said Yahdon Israel, influencer and founder of #LiterarySwag, a book club and subscription service merging style and literary conversation. When he created Literary Swag, it was a “cultural initiative” and a way to galvanize readers behind books.
Both Hoit and Israel have a hunger for and adoration of books, and their influencing grew from that hunger. “Bookishness and the trends surrounding it are something I’ve experienced my whole life,” Hoit said. The advent of her popular Instagram account, @nycbookgirl, derived from a time of her life when she was an assistant for a Broadway producer and needed a project outside of work. “You’re able to find readers from all across the country and world to talk about books and to display your love for books, and they’re displaying their lives, too.”
For Israel, his influencer impulse arrived as an extension of the growth of his personal library. “From 2014, when I attended the MFA program at the New School, and onward,” he explained, “my engagement with books is both rigorous and sincere; I read the books.”
Bookishness as art form
Bookishness also comes from the act of choosing to interact with the book as an art form. “Like opera, dance, or video games—even being really into wine—people have a way of communicating their hobbies as a reflection of their sense of self,” said Lauren Cerand, literary arts publicist and consultant. “Bookishness comes from this idea that there are infinite choices of things to fill your time, and books are what you choose.”
The book itself has long been seen as an object with common ground among analog composites of modern-day digitized cultural forms. Chains like Urban Outfitters and Warby Parker sell cassette tapes, vinyl, and books as way to generate revenue while also enticing customers to browse, shop, and impulse buy. “A lot of stores do their buying entirely based on color,” explained Rachel Fershleiser, associate publisher and executive director of marketing at Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull Press. “They’ll be like, ‘We’re looking for orange books this season. What do you have?’ ”
With books coverage continually shrinking, publishers have to be on the lookout for any marketing opportunity, no matter the channel. One way to stoke the fires of literary discourse is to ensure that people have galleys, swag, and other promotional items to spread the word. To promote Lynne Tillman’s book Men and Apparitions, Megan Fishmann, associate publisher/senior director of publicity for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull Press, bought old photos online of random men from the 1950s. “I just mailed them to reviewers,” she said. “I wrote on the back, ‘Lynne Tillman/Men and Apparitions,’ nothing else.” In this way, she exhibited themes from the book in a manner that inspired bookishness in those that received and posted about the photos.
Building on audience
Influencing comes down to a layered series of roles. From macro (between 100,000 and one million followers) to micro (between 10,000 to 100,000 followers), every influencer builds an audience. Israel explained how a book works its way from recommendation to well-read: “Micro influencers are the people who can actually shift a behavior, because people who follow them are really invested in the thing. When you hit the millions, you’re more about cultivating awareness. Oprah can tell you about a book and there’s more people who are bound to buy the book. By that virtue, more people are bound to read the book, but how many of those readers are sincerely invested in the actual culture of books is always going to be a smaller number.”
Publishers have begun to cross paths and work with influencers to encourage bookishness. “When Avid Reader launched in 2019, we made tote bags,” Hoit said. “We printed like 500 of them for various targeted mailings. Most went to indie bookstores, but more importantly they were given away not to be sold. The most frequent requests that we got on social media were people looking to buy them.”
The book cover has evolved, too: recognizable fonts, color patterns, and palettes glean interest from both online and bookstore shoppers. “I’ll want to buy something because it’s just so gorgeous, even though I don’t think I’ll get around to reading it,” Fishmann said. “I bought Murakami’s 1Q84 because it was gorgeous, with a special jacket. I have not read past two pages. Will I ever? I hope so. But the cover was a piece of art that I wanted to own and put on my shelves.”
A book cover directly interacts with bookishness, prompting prospective readers to pick up a book and maybe even post photos of it. “That’s where influencers come in,” Cerand said. “Having people on different social media platforms talking about the book and discovering it.”
Some bookish efforts can be done cheaply. “You can go on Bonfire and make a book-specific T-shirt and sell them directly to your fans,” Fershleiser said. “You don’t have to have the overhead of creating a product only if it has a really big audience.”
In 2010, Out of Print launched with a mission to transform literary classics into apparel and accessories. The company was acquired by Penguin Random House in 2017 and has continued to produce bookish products customers can accessorize with and use to show support for their favorite authors and books. Haruki Murakami recently partnered with Uniqlo on a fashion line of shirts and other clothing with designs influenced by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and more.
“People who become snobbish or advocate against a superficial relationship with a book,” Israel noted, speaking of the performative nature of bookishness on social media, “have got to realize most things start at a superficial level.”
Fershleiser added, “There’s a real assumption that people who present their love of books in a certain way are less likely to be serious readers. People who love books are very passionate, and there’s a tendency to lash out—like, ‘Oh, you’re just pretending.’ ”
Above all, the book is a symbol of knowledge, creativity, and readership. As algorithms tell us what we might like and serve to shape the way we think, books become, as Pressman put it, “the act of continuing to examine what it means to be human and our desire to hold on to discrete things that are clearly outdated.” And that is the essence of bookishness.
Michael Seidlinger is a freelance writer in New York City.