I was reading an article in the Washington Post titled Books Have Become the New “It” Fashion Accessory. Is That Such a Bad Thing? The article discusses the trend of celebrities (generally female) being photographed with a book in hand. It tends to conflate several trends involving celebs and literature. One is the bookish paparazzi shot. Another is the celebrity book club, and another is celebrity book pics on instagram. Let’s look at these separately for a moment.
With paparazzi shots, it can be difficult to tell whether they’re staged (unless the shot features the celeb in question doing something hideously embarrassing in which case, chances are it isn’t staged!) but there are places that celebs can expect to encounter a photographer. Think airports in major cities like LA and NYC. What is a popular activity that many people (famous and nonfamous) do on planes? Yep, that’s right. Read. So is there an awareness on the part of celebs that they might well be photographed? Yes. I’d imagine that they take care to look good at the airport for that reason. But if they have a book with them it might just be for reading purposes! More suspicious by far is if a celebrity is photographed emerging from a nightclub with a book. Because no one (to my knowledge) reads in that setting.
Then there’s the celebrity book clubs. Oprah’s is the most famous, but Emma Robert’s Belletrist, Florence Welch’s Between Two Books, Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf, Reese Witherspoon’s RW Book Club, are all on the radar. These clubs have different purposes. But there’s some skepticism expressed in the comments and even in the article:
“These posts make reading look both cozy and chic, an activity best done with polished toes, in a slouchy yet stylish sweater, on a plush piece of furniture, in front of a fireplace and/or in the company of a highly Instagrammable dog. “
But is it fair to accuse these personalities of hopping on the book bandwagon for the sake of image? Reese Witherspoon’s book club highlights books that she enjoys. However her production company frequently options the books for film adaptation. Sometimes she stars in them (Wild, Big Little Lies) and at other times she serves as a producer (Gone Girl). Do you really think she doesn’t read a book before investing time and money on an adaptation? Emma Watson is a vocal feminist in addition to being an actress. Her book club, Our Shared Shelf shares books by and about various female experiences. It encourages discussion. Watson is the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and she has a degree in English Literature from Brown University. She is very capable of both reading books and leading discussions about them.
But this questioning of female celebrities when they’re open about their love of books isn’t anything new. Recently Christie’s auctioned off Marilyn Monroe’s personal library of over 400 books. Photographers often thought that it was funny to pose the world’s most famous “dumb blonde” with her nose in a thick book, but according to those who knew her she was an avid reader with a curious mind. In 2010 her poems, notes, letters, diary entries, and more were published as Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters. These informal scribbles reveal a thoughtful, sensitive soul who used literature as a lifeline. In spite of this being known about Monroe, she is still sealed in popular imagination as a spacey, somewhat clueless tragic figure.
Logically we know that all actors play parts that may be very different from who they are in their personal life. But we still have trouble when we’re presented with evidence of that. That trouble is elevated when we are discussing female performers. I think the reason for that goes back to why male actors once played all parts or why actresses were once regarded as prostitutes. Something in western culture is deeply suspicious of a woman who has something going on behind the curtains. Our society wants to be able to “see” what a woman is. But if she presents a different face to different audiences, it’s hard to know if you’re seeing the real thing. That’s scary to many people.
The article then goes on to discuss the #bookstagram phenomenon.
Some bibliophiles take their ink-on-paper fetish a little too far online. “Ladies are draping their bodies across a swath of opened books like some sort of Abrahamic sacrifice to the gods of paper and ink,” Hillary Kelly wrote in Vulture last year, identifying one of the more unsettling bookish fads to sweep Instagram.
I could get into a whole discussion about why this is “too far” and “unsettling” but I won’t. That’s a whole nother topic! But I find it interesting that in the comments several people questioned the validity of celebrities photographed with books because they were holding physical books rather than ereaders. I think this goes back to the reason that I don’t believe that ebooks will ever completely replace physical books. Physical books have a power as objects that ereaders lack (I discussed that a bit in this post). Books as physical objects are really what ties this article together.
Think about it. When you see someone reading a psychological thriller, or a romance novel or a political biography, you make assumptions about them. You make guesses about what they’re interested in, and why they’re reading that book. Your guesses may not be right, but that’s another story. What a person is reading is a little window that can potentially reveal a lot. I think that aspect of the reveal is part of what makes people uncomfortable. It’s almost similar to people being uncomfortable next to someone in a very revealing outfit. I think that with celebrities we assume the books they hold are performative because we are uncomfortable with the idea of them being so comfortable as to share that. I think that this is really the crux of what seems like a pretty thoughtless opinion piece in the newspaper.