I’m going to start this by saying that I am not knocking anyone who has these shelves. I am not ‘coming for you’ or denying that you have the right to have these things. This post is merely pointing out the inherent dangers of this kind of ‘advertising’.
So, take a deep breath and get comfortable, this is a long one.
I have always been a reader. I love the written word. Everything from fantasy and sci-fi, romance, horror, classics, non-fiction; hell, I’ll even read the back of a cereal box if there’s nothing else. (with the weird exception of non-rhyming poetry. Like, if it doesn’t rhyme, what is even the point?)
I remember getting into trouble for having books at the dinner table, books in bed way past bedtime and hiding books under the table at school while I was supposed to doing algebra. (Because the quadratic equation has been sooo useful in my life Mr Felix.)
I have always thought of myself as a book lover, a book hoarder and book collector.
Recently I discovered bookstagram and it has filled me with this weird imposter syndrome that really, truly bothers me.
I’ve been a librarian for over 15 years and I love sharing my love of books with others. I figured I’d join Instagram to do that and I have met and seen some truly fantastic ‘grams that are beautiful and funny and have caused me to buy and read many new authors.
I’ve also started taking pictures of books that I love and have my own Instagram bookstagram account. instagram.com/lyd_tea
It’s a wonderful way of finding new authors and looking at pretty pictures. Nothing wrong with that.
So let me explain my issue with it.
Instagram and the influencer lifestyle.
We all know that Instagram influencers do not have the lifestyle that they portray through their photographs. We know that Millie takes pictures of cars that are not hers and clothes that she takes back. We know she has sponsors that pay for all her stuff and force her to post eighteen-bajillion times a week. We know that she knows her angles and is not as thin as she claims. We know this.
But it doesn’t stop us from buying into the VERY false message that she is somehow better than us. That she is living her best life.
We know it’s fake… but what if…
Bookstagram shelves are the influencer lifestyle that all booknerds want. We want our shelves to be colour coded and all the same height and pristine hardback copies of every single new release signed by the author and spray painted in gold and dripping in diamonds.
We want those books; we crave those books and we crave that book nook and the candles and the funkos and all of it.
Bookstagram is porn for readers.
And just like porn, most of it is faked, photoshopped and, in the case of some, just there to get us excited.
We look at their immaculate shelves and we think, “My shelves aren’t like that. I guess I’m not as big a reader as them. I guess I’m not as GOOD a reader as them.”
Annnnd BOOM. You have been influenced. Suddenly your thousands of tatty re-read library seconds and charity shop (thrift store) finds just don’t cut it.
The ‘Perfect’ Shelf
I’m not denying that these shelves are beautiful. They are sexy as hell. But look closer.
Do they look a little too pristine? A little too uniform? None of those shiny white pages look yellowed. They don’t look like the spine has even been cracked. They don’t look read.
In fact, I’ve watched a number of bookshelf tours and when they go through they point at books and say, “I’m so excited to read this,” to almost 3/4 of the books they own.
All of these books look brand new. Where are the paperbacks? Where are the books from the sales or ex-library stock?
I don’t know about you but these shelves intimidate the heck out of me. But they also don’t make me want to actually read. If I pull out a book it would ruin the perfect symmetry you’ve got going on. And also, what if I were to buy a new book? These shelves look pretty full. If you can’t add any more books or even read any of them without ruining the aesthetic are they really perfect?
A lot of comments on these Instagram posts say “OMG I love these shelves. They are #goals.”
Now, I’m not going to lie; I would LOVE shelves like these. I would love my shelves to be pretty and uniform and symmetrical.
I would love to pose in front of immaculate shelves in a pretty dress (probably three times the size of hers but still).
But should it be goals?
My sister made a wonderful point once. She looked at my shelves and then at some Instagram posts and said, “You’re a reader. These people are collectors. You have a single loved copy of that book (although stop using pieces of ripped paper as bookmarks, what are you? An animal? Geez!) and that person has three different editions in hardback, three in paperback and one in a language she can’t even read. She’s a collector. You can’t judge yourself by her standards.”
She can be quite wise, my little sister.
Should I judge myself by the bookstagrammer’s standard?
Should I want what she has?
Again, looking closer. She has the Percy Jackson series which, while cool, isn’t my cup of tea at all. The Selection series? Again, cool but not for me. She has the Twilight series. I’d rather cut off my own face.
Suddenly I don’t want her shelves. I’d still kill for her figure and that dress but her interests clearly don’t align with mine.
Sometimes they do. Sometimes I will see a gorgeous cover on a bookstagram post and I’ll be filled with all seven deadly sins and I’ll buy it. I’m lucky that I have both disposable income and the opportunity to buy (on occasion- I’m not rich). This brings me to the next section.
Cost and consumerism
I recently wanted to purchase a certain set of books from a certain well known book box subscription service. I eagerly awaited the reveal of the cover art and the stunning sprayed edges and suddenly there it was. A set of three hardback copies of my beloved series and HOLY SH*T HOW MUCH?????
I choked on my tea and decide that little old me did NOT have that much to waste on a set of books that I already owned copies of (albeit battered, torn, read a gazillion times and in paperback).
Actually. I do have the money but I also have rent. Bills. A desire to eat something other than gluten-free spaghetti because its disgusting (seriously anyone have any ideas on gluten-free spaghetti that doesn’t look like slime threw up? And taste like the bottom of a glue pot?).
Many, many, many books that you see on bookstagram are from book box subscriptions and the vast majority of them are US based and cost the proverbial arm and a leg to get sent over to the UK. But hey, I’m lucky because there are some awesome UK based companies now that I can get.
I’m not a rep but I’m going to give a shout out to the End of the World reading club here for feeding my apocalyptic survival prepper needs. Seriously, I got binoculars in my last box and a card on how to start a fire. Dangerous but fun.
Also, you might be lucky enough to waste a whole hour of your life on a loading page to submit your details to another crate and, after finally deciding that your life is worth more than this, you suddenly get confirmation that you are now shelling out £30 a month for a book box that other people would happily kill you for.
Some places you literally cannot get these boxes even if you sold your soul to the devil. (I’ve heard he accepts venmo and Klarna now though.)
Privilege is a huge discussion at the moment. There was a post made a while ago about not everybody having access to either buy books or rent them for free. I believe it was a Filipino twitter user who mentioned that she has no libraries within 100 miles of her home and to import books costs usually twice as much as the actual book is worth.
In the western world we have the privilege to get these things and by showing them on bookstagram are we feeding that consumer monster that makes others feel less.
Bookstagram is an expensive hobby if you go to the lengths that these guys go to.
The shelf below is gorgeousness personified. I love these editions. They are so pretty. But my husband looked into buying the clothbound classics for me as a gift.
According to the Penguin website, there are 86 clothbound classics. They are £14.99 each so that’s £1,290. Or if you have their buy 3 for £33 offer that’s £957. Then there are the box sets so let’s say around £1000. ($1300)
That’s £1000 for those middle three shelves.
There are also some Barnes and Noble leatherbound classics. According to Sir Google there are around 100 of these and they retail around $25 which is £18. That’s another £1800.
Those shelves are worth at least £3000.
That’s a second-hand car. Or four months’ rent depending on where you live.
Like I’ve said time and again, no shame to the person who owns these shelves. The shelves are beautiful and maybe they saved up for years to get these. Maybe they were gifts or freebies or whatever. No judgement.
But, for the average person, that is just not feasible.
Do not feel bad because you can’t afford to spend six months’ wages on books.
Then there are the props and the funkos and the candles and the alternative dust jackets (not bitter because Juniper books and Nerdy Ink do not deliver to the UK. Not at all.). The book jackets for Throne of Glass are £90 ($120). That doesn’t include books. That’s just the jackets.
Bookish Funko pops are handmade and can be found on etsy for around £60 each (if you can get them as they are limited).
Candles are around £7 each. Crowns, daggers, lights, the shelves themselves all cost money.
Suddenly the Perfect shelves are costing as much a child. Even if they are prettier and do not drool as much.
Accessibility and sponsorship/reps
Also let’s take a second to have a third look.
Where are your paperbacks? Where are your audiobooks?
Accessibility should be about what people can get and many people only have the time to listen to audiobooks.
I know someone who works in a school and uses her commute time to catch up on her reading. She has two and half hours of driving to and from work and that is the only time she can read.
Where is her representation? What about those who read braille books? Large print? Barrington Stoke for Dyslexia?
The shelves are starting to become more diverse in terms of authors and own voices but we are still just seeing physical copies (or the occasional Kindle front cover).
I want to see someone’s large print collection or a section of dyslexic titles.
Also, why is there very little non-fiction on bookstagram?
As a penultimate point here I’m going to say that I know there are companies who sponsor bookstagrammers. They give free ARCs and box-sets and there are reps for all the major book box subscriptions and that is all fine. But it does give the same feeling as those “book haul” posts and videos. It’s about consumerism and getting as many pretty things as you can. Its our magpie society and we want them.
This is where I would put words of wisdom but ‘I’m not sure I have any.
The imposter syndrome I mentioned at the outset still stands sometimes.
But I’m getting better.
When I look at my shelves, I know that those books are loved and read and it doesn’t matter that I don’t have every single edition of Pride and Prejudice known to man.
It also doesn’t matter that I have some books that I’ve had longer than many bookstagrammers have been alive.
What matters is that I love reading. I always will. And if you love reading too then those are your #goals.
So, can we get back to posting pictures of books and not peddle the myth of the perfect shelf?
Ps. Shout out to some fantastic Instagram accounts here
@paperfury @bluestockingbooks @storygramtours @petraorloff @bookscandlescats @xenatine @crossstichandstories (seriously follow this girl. Her cross stitch skills rock)@mels_endless_bookshelf (she does ebook pics)