Burn After Reading: How Instagram Sucks The Joy Out Of Books

In which the hyper-competitive world of social media turns its ire on… readers.

Instagram is quite wonderful in some ways. I mean it. It does not seem to be the cesspool of stupidity that is Facebook or possess the simmering aggression of Twitter. If social media can frequently seem like a lot of very shouty and angry people roaring at you through a ten-decibel megaphone, then Instagram – with its soothing pictures of lush landscapes, designer coffee cafes, cute pets, sunsets and museum visits is a balm for the soul. Ahhh… a paeon to the soothing niceties of modern life, where you don’t have to worry about why Owen Jones is trending or what Boris Johnson has done today. A real paragon of maturity compared to the shrieky self-obsessed teenager that social media frequently becomes!

Except in one area – books.

Yes, books. It might seem bizarre, but over the last couple of years, the most fraught and potentially dangerous area of Instagram is ‘Bookstagram’ – a strand where people take photos of books they’ve read and post them, often with a short, well-written review and an invitation to comment. Fair enough. I actually like it – I’ve discovered some very good books and authors who I perhaps would not have tried otherwise. So I joined in. Until I realised recently that the parameters on Bookstagram are as stentorian and furious as a debate on politics on Twitter. And that annoys me. Really.

If you really believe in free speech – and I do – then surely people are entitled to post what they like on their own Instagram feed? Apparently not, silly me. This was brought home when I noticed a post of “Bookstagram red flags.” These ranged from refusing to count audiobooks as reading (which is seen as ableist as it dismisses the visually impaired); putting people down for only reading a certain genre; making remarks about how much people read; making a judgement on people’s bookshelves; getting upset when other people do not like your favourite books; and not reading diversely because you’d rather read what’s seen as good. Frankly, this is an astonishing list – it’s a real ‘this is what you do that’s wrong’ tirade and aimed at making everyone who sees it feel guilty. And also highly contradictory – it’s not acceptable to comment on someone who only reads fantasy or sci-fi, for example, but it’s also wrong not to read diversely? Making a judgement on people’s bookshelves? If you post pictures of your shelves, surely you do so in the knowledge that people might make the odd comment. As for the view on audiobooks – it might interest people to know that they existed long before they were called ‘audiobooks’. They used to exist on cassette tapes and be called ‘talking books.’ Some people do think they are lazy, whilst others might argue that books take up space, and just popping your earphones in to listen to a soothing voice from your phone takes the stress out of a long commute or slow shift. But to imply that by disagreeing with this you are prejudiced against those with a visual disability is breathtakingly arrogant. Another is people who attack those who attack unfavourable reviews of their own favourite books. Again, here’s an unfortunate truth – freedom of speech and the right to opinions. Why try and censor others if you’re so sure of your own? You did not like a book. Fine. Someone else loves it. Fine. They think you’re wrong, you think they’re wrong – just agree to disagree.

I could add a few of my own red flags – those who sneer at e-readers such as kindles but are obsessed with buying hardbacks purely for the pretty covers; those that post endless pictures buying books but never seem to read them; those that claim Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is a book but a Marvel comic is not. I also get peeved at those who read a book after they’ve seen the film or TV series. Don’t they know that they will have missed the nuances and the whole experience?! And don’t get me started on the ‘Kidult’ craze that was sparked by Harry Potter. To quote the late humourist Linda Smith, “when I see people on a train reading Harry Potter, I just feel like buying a bag of books and giving them Madame Bovary.” At least we’ve moved on from the asinine craze that was Fifty Shades of Grey, a book about BDSM written by someone who’d clearly never participated in any (and I thought authors had to do research. Sheesh.) And as for people who state you should only read in silence – you absolute monsters, get away from my finely curated CD collection! But this is the thing – once you start really thinking about what annoys you about other people’s habits, you’re on a runaway train with no end in sight. And you’re not even going to get a watery over-priced mocha and limp flapjack from the buffet to ease the pain of being so judgemental about your fellow humans.

So, the point? The point is in this device-obsessed, multi-streaming channel world, picking up a book for a few hours is a solace of peace. A chance to take some time out and just think. If people want to post pics of books and bookshelves and reviews, let them. But don’t try and kid yourself that by stating what you don’t like about this makes you a beacon of tolerance for readers. In periods of history, people used to burn books because they were so afraid of challenging opinions and believed it would keep social harmony – everyone compliant. If you can’t tolerate people having different opinions over reading and stating it, perhaps the book burners had the right idea.


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