(Photo illustration by The Free Press; images via Getty Images and Alamy)

Who Is Reading Even for Anymore?

There are now two types of readers—the ones quietly enjoying a book and the ones for whom books are content fodder.

You’ve probably seen the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you have, you know that it is, on its face, an absurd image. Monroe is in full makeup, wearing a fashionable romper, seated on the wooden slat of a merry-go-round with a copy of the book in her lap. Her perch is so narrow, and her position so precarious, that it would have been a challenge to rest comfortably there for more than a few minutes, let alone to do so while immersed in one of the most famously difficult texts in the history of the Western canon. 

If Marilyn Monroe read Ulysses, she was surely not actually reading it here—but this, as the meme goes, is bait. This image is an announcement that Monroe and the photographer alike are daring you to contradict, which of course you won’t, if you know what’s good for you. What’s your problem, guy? You think pretty girls can’t read?

Actress Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses by James Joyce, 1955 on Long Island, NY.(Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos)

Books have always led this sort of double life: as vehicles for story on one side, and on the other, as props in a performance. The book you read under the covers in the privacy of your home is not necessarily the one you read in a bar, or on the subway, or during the photo shoot explicitly designed to subvert your image as the stereotypical dumb blonde. With books—as with so many things—who we are and what we want live in tension with how we wish to be seen. 

Last century’s moral binary between people who read and people who don’t (see: John Waters’ oft-quoted edict about not having sex with anyone who doesn’t have books in their house), has morphed into the more specific notion that the bookshelf is a window to the soul. 

What can we glean from the library glimpsed over your shoulder on Zoom? What books on a shelf or bedside table signal not just bad taste but bad character? This latter question is the subject of endless pontificating on social media: a well-worn copy of Infinite Jest, for instance, is supposedly a red flag, although it’s hard to say for what. Then there are the dating-site troglodytes whose favorite books are too basic (To Kill a Mockingbird) or too popular (Twilight), exceeded in their heinousness only by those who don’t read much at all. 

And of course, there’s the question of what to do if your date lets slip that he’s reading Jordan Peterson, a.k.a. He Who Must Not Be Named: Should you decline to go out with him again, or should you immediately run screaming from the restaurant? 

What’s clear is that reading has been transformed from a private activity to a public one, something you do for an audience. Literature, and especially literature read by young people, has been a flashpoint in the culture wars since before the first outraged parent demanded that Judy Blume’s Forever be stripped from library shelves. But in the age of Goodreads review-bombing, YA Twitter pile ons, Bad Art Friends, and the bizarro universe of internecine literary conflicts known as BookTok, what used to be a niche form of drama has gone mainstream in the digital age. Books have content, but they also are content: posed alongside a glass of wine or cup of coffee in a photo bound for Instagram, or framing an irate TikToker as she monologues about whether audiobooks count as reading

Actually opening the book and spending however many hours in private, thorough contemplation of the world inside? Of course, you can do this—and lots of people still do—but you’re not going viral that way. A recent interview—complete with sultry photoshoot—with the model Kaia Gerber, whose new book club is to internet culture what that Marilyn Monroe photo was to the pinup era, includes a revealing quote from actress Ayo Edebiri: “That girl be reading. That girl be reading, and she finishes them. A lot of the girls don’t finish the book. They just post ’em.” 

This notion, that a person may claim to have read a book even if she has not, you know, read the book, suggests that “reader” is a category one can now identify into, one centered on affinity instead of activity. Consider the character-crafting around which White Lotus character lugged which title to the beach, or GQ’s recent list of the best “status” books for so-called Hot Guys, which contains not a single recommendation based on literary merit. 

Jacob Elordi is seen outside the Today show—with a paperback—on October 24, 2023, in New York City. (Raymond Hall via Getty Images)

Readers are warned instead that Penguin Modern Classic covers are “unlikely to catch the wandering eye of a single gal (or guy) scanning the pub”—but the bright blue Fitzcarraldo Editions, from the London imprint, “will mark you out as someone with thoughts about the latest Patricia Lockwood essay.” 

That the reader in question likely hasn’t read Lockwood’s latest essay, or even perhaps cannot read at all, is irrelevant. Who needs to read a book, when you can just look like the type of guy who does?

Of course, books are not the first pastime to be adopted as an aesthetic: consider the Patagonia vest-wearing tech bro, or urban hipsters in prairie dresses, or the vogue for “balletcore” among people who’ve never danced in their lives and couldn’t tell a pas de chat from a trou du cul. There is doing the thing, and then there is looking like you do the thing, which has an entirely different appeal. 

But strange things happen when we reimagine the reading experience as something communal rather than individual—and hence, subject to the wisdom, or madness, of crowds. Social media has already transformed the way we talk about books, and the way we choose them. Against the backdrop of the culture wars, a book is more likely to be lauded for its politics, its representation, or the identity of its author, than the quality of the storytelling. The books that aren’t written according to these mores are quickly becoming the exception. 

For the moment, a chasm has opened between these two types of readers—the ones quietly enjoying a book and the ones for whom books are content fodder. But it is the latter group, the public readers, whose tastes and desires have the most power to shape what we think of as “book culture”—and whose tastes and desires are shaped in turn by having to perform reading for an audience. 

It’s possible to imagine a future in which some people read, and some identify as readers, and never the twain shall meet. In 2022, a popular BookTok creator described how he yearned for the days when it was just him and his library—and when he could finish a book without immediately turning on his front-facing camera to share his thoughts with the world. “I just want to get back to reading for reading’s sake,” he said.

He never posted again.

Kat Rosenfield is a columnist for UnHerd. Follow her on Twitter, now X, at @katrosenfield and read her latest Free Press story on Hulu’s “Murder at the End of the World.”

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