We Need To Talk About Bookworm Shaming

To my friends and family, I’ve always tried to paint the picture of Bookstagram as some paradise corner of the internet where people are amiable and accepting of everyone. It’s that perfect online community where people don’t argue or fight. That’s a lie, though.

Bookstagram is far from perfect. I’ve tried to glorify the image of bookworms in my head and see them as inclusive people who don’t judge or who, when they do judge, understand the motivation behind what someone does – very much like we’d analyze a character in a book. But we’re not characters in books and we, bookworms, are flawed people. We spare characters but vilify anyone who is a little different, we shame them (as a certain Vulture article recently demonstrated). We are dogear-shamers, bookstore-haters, library purists and intellectual elitists. The fact is, the way you behave reflects on the entire community and that’s why we need to have this discussion.

Dogearing is not evil. Bookmarks are not angels – have you ever experienced a paper cut from an innocent receipt? There is nothing wrong with folding the corner of a page if that’s your instinct to remember where you stopped reading. There is nothing wrong or superior about using a bookmark. It’s an object like any other and you insert it into your book. (To be honest, I don’t like the idea of putting things into other things, I wonder what books feel about this? I use bookmarks when I feel like it, but generally I don’t.)

Ebooks are as much a reading material as paperbacks. Ebooks are not some new advent that are murdering book sales all over the world. Publishers want you to buy more books and that’s maybe why we’re so aggressively told that print is dying. Everything can be a conspiracy theory if you’re mad enough. If you read an ebook, you’re not going to embarrass your bookish forefathers and foremothers. If you buy a kindle, it doesn’t mean you’re turning your back on being a “true bookworm”. Kindles are actually extremely convenient, just like paperbacks are when it comes to underlining and highlighting text. That’s another thing we like schooling people about. How dare you put a nib to paper? How dare you write your thoughts and feelings on the margins of the book that you bought with your own money? What kind of a monster wants other bookworms to know their reactions about a passage or scene?

I almost forgot: Listening to audiobooks is also reading. It’s a different form of storytelling, perhaps closer to the initial way humans began receiving stories, but it’s storytelling nonetheless. If you only listen to audiobooks it’s not less than reading from a book. You’ve probably gotten much better at listening comprehension than the rest of us.

Taking photos of books is not a crime so let us not persecute each other for being artistic. Bookstagram is filled with teenagers who are choosing to connect with books in a new creative manner. That’s so much better than all the unhealthy and harmful options that are so readily available to them. To criticize such a young audience, and any one regardless of their age or occupation, for artistically sharing their passion with the world is petty and self-absorbed. For a lot of us places like Bookstagram are de-stressing zones where we’re able to forget about otherwise looming anxieties. It’s a respite.

If I buy a book but don’t read it (and post a photo of it online), how different is that to our parents buying the entire range of encyclopedias and never really “reading” them? Are we going to shame our parents now? My dad loves buying business related self help books – you know the kind for entrepreneurs and businessmen? He never finishes reading any of them. Am I going to tell him he’s a fake bookworm? Why should it bother me what he does with his books? He bought books, kept them on his shelves and unintentionally introduced me to them when I was a kid. In any case, if someone takes a photo of a book, what is that taking away from your life?

I’ve taken photos of books I haven’t read (yet). Sue me. I don’t actively puresue the romance genre but that doesn’t mean I think romance readers are unintelligent. I think young adult books are cheesy sometimes and they don’t really work for me, and I really can’t stand John Green or Rainbow Rowell, but my best friend loves both and I love my best friend. I think Bookstagram is filled with readers who are trying to be like Holden Caulfield but they’re missing the entire point. That book is also a classic YA so how can anyone hate on a genre that gave us Holden? How can any of us have the energy to glorify one specific genre and berate another just because we don’t read it?

Speaking of genres, there is nothing wrong if you read only one. There is nothing wrong is you watch the film before the book. There’s nothing wrong if you reread a book or only read one book repeatedly for the rest of your life. Read books the way you’re drawn to them.

So, here’s the thing – I want my bookshelves to look pretty but apparently too pretty is a problem? Maybe I’ll even try a rainbow one day or turn my books upside down. Maybe I’ll arrange by author or genre or mix it all up like it’s all mixed up in my brain. My study desk and every other surface in my room has stacks of books. It’s often very disorganized but looks very pleasing when I get home after a long day. Does this make me more of a bookworm or does my clean, neat, organized bookshelf make me a true bookworm? It’s neither. I read and that’s what matters.

Space brings me to the next thing: buying books. Lots of people don’t want to see you even write about buying or owning books because it’s selfish to not support libraries (I get a lot of passive aggressive comments when I post about my book hauls). Many of the comments I get seem to take root in good intention: They want me to save money or support local. To be honest, not everyone has a library in their community. We didn’t have them in Saudi Arabia so buying books was the only option. But also, if someone wants to buy books, let them. Why are we so afraid that libraries will perish? They will not. If more people buy books that’s actually a better way to ensure that the coming generations will have direct and free access to books.

Buying books doesn’t mean people don’t appreciate libraries, it means they might not have libraries in their community. Not every town is New York or London. There are spaces beyond first world countries where getting access to books is a problem. Buying books online doesn’t mean you don’t want to support independent bookstores. It means that maybe that independent bookstore is quite far and maybe you don’t have time so why not tap into the convenience of online shopping? Pr maybe you don’t have any independent bookstore in your country and your only choice is Book Depository or Wordery or Amazon. Now that raises a whole other issue; shopping online doesn’t mean you’re not a true bookworm just like only shopping at the bookstore doesn’t mean you’re exclusively doing it right.

Book bloggers should get paid for writing blog tours and dictated content. Now this is the hot topic of the hour (my brother @theguywiththebook wrote an article about this) and a bunch of us have been discussing it for months now. Publishers send us books for free, that’s great – thank u, next. It gives us access to new releases, but the reason publishers send a blogger books is because they’re a blogger, not because they’re a reader. They’ll send you a book if they know you’ll post about it somewhere. So yes you might call yourself a book reviewer but you’re basically doing the job a blogger does – whether on WordPress or Instagram. If blogging and racking up thousands of followers was easy, then we would all have millions of followers. But not everyone manages to get a large following because it’s a job. It takes effort. It takes dedication. It takes a whole lot of energy to get to even 300 followers. It’s not a joke and publishers know this. So next time when I request a publisher to pay me for introducing a book to my audience don’t blame me, because I don’t and shouldn’t work for free. And I should clarify: it’s an ad when they want me to post on a specific day with a specific hashtag and specific information. Why should I spend an hour writing a blog tour post introducing a book and then announce it to the people who are following me FOR FREE? I love books but I don’t like getting used by anyone. Readers try to shame book bloggers into doing things for free because there’s a weird logic that you shouldn’t get paid for book-related things because reading is a passionate hobby.

As long as it’s a commodity of commercial value, publishers will want to advertise books because they want to make money, they want their authors to make money so why shouldn’t book bloggers get the benefit of the book sales they’re helping generate? And most of all, what are readers so scared of? We’re not selling positive reviews, we’re selling a space on our platforms. If you’re a reader the least you should already be doing is to read the blurb of the book you feel inspired to purchase. Or read reviews before you buy it. You should know whether it’s something you want to read or not, a book blogger’s advertisement is just information, not endorsement. By advertising we’re not forcing you to make any decisions.

To publishers I want to say: Telling bookstagrammers and book bloggers that you don’t have a budget for social media publicity is a very bad excuse. Your refusal to acknowledge what we do as publicity work calls into question your professionalism. We really hope publishers will have actual meetings to discuss publicity budgets for social media.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Here’s the problem with the concept of “unpopular opinion” – it makes you unpopular. These are opinions that you should avoid revealing because its obviously the wrong thing to say. When did we become so cruel? Let people say what they think and feel, there is space for everyone.

I’ve been thinking about all of these issues and more for months now. It’s disappointing to see bookworms having petty arguments over trivial issues like dog-ears, book buying and reading preferences. Some bibliophiles want to establish some elitist order or code that governs who is doing it the “right way”. It’s almost like we don’t realize that just by participating in the act of reading we are already part of an elite group of humans who are literate. You’re privileged if you are a bookworm. We are all equal in this regard.

So I can’t deny it any longer: bookworms are no better. We’re human. Perhaps the only redeeming thing about it is that, despite all, we’re still a community that nurtures each other. There’s an openness that you can’t find in other places. So while bookworms do say things that can be hurtful for some, they’re still some of the nicest people around. Perhaps this is why it pricks a little when a bookworm sends a passive aggressive comment about a dogear or audiobook. I hope we will all realize that these aren’t things we should be putting a sense of hierarchy into. We can be better than this.

PS: These issues are not bookstagram-specific and exist everywhere bookworms exist. None of this should stop you from joining Bookstagram because despite all of this it is a wonderful community to be a part of.

I would love to know your thoughts on any of the issues I touched upon. If you have a story or problem you’d like to share from your perspective then please do. It’s time for all of us to learn from each other.

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21 thoughts on “We Need To Talk About Bookworm Shaming

  1. I loved how you began and ended your thoughts. I agree with you, we all have become humans from readers. Instead of getting lost in fictional and fantastical world’s, we have become nosy. Thank you for giving a rest to all the drama happening on BG! 💜

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I love what you said about becoming nosy – that’s the perfect word for it 😭 It’s become really tiresome and I know it’s not a problem we can eliminate entirely, but we should address it whenever we can because there are literally children amongst us who need better examples ♥️

  2. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head about everything there. People get so tied up about liking things their way, forgetting that others are always going to differ or agree because individual identities and preferences exist

  3. your blog post is on point. i always dog ear my books, and i wish we had a library so we could borrow books instead of buying them. Thank you so much Sumaiyya for being such an inspiration to all of us.

  4. The dog-earing pages part actually struck a nerve with me. People can get so overly sensitive about such trivial things.
    Nonetheless, really enjoyed the post! Well done 😊

  5. Thank you so much for writing this post! Dog-earring is something that really struck with me because it’s something I’ve always done since I could read. Then, I entered the book community and was told it was horrible. So, I started buying bookmarks. I spent more than $30 (which is a lot in my country with the high exchange rate) buying bookmarks and I don’t even use them!

    Another thing is about bookstagram. I was on bookstagram for a few months and I really loved the community but I think people are putting too much emphasis on BEAUTIFUL photos. I would rush home after uni ended to take pictures before the light went. Always worrying about taking “perfect” photos and editing *just right*. Also, photos of books that aren’t so popular or new releases tend not to do so well. So, I was also worrying about having the money (which is a lot because, exchange rate again!) to buy the latest releases. It really did my head in. I’ve left bookstagram now and I’m never going back.

    Also, that part about book bloggers being paid for their content creation is so so true. I really hope publishers listen and change things.

    Sorry for the long comment. I’ve just never spoken to anyone about this before. I don’t have close friends in the book community and my family is uninterested. It was really nice to get some of it off my chest. Thank you so much again 💕❤
    Taiwo xx

  6. Though I never had any friends who would tell me how to use book (folding pages, writing on it etc) I think books are there to make you more open to the world…be it being open to new experiences or accepting people just the way they are. Because books shows us that every person has their own story. So people telling others how to be a bookstagrammar is actually very shallow. Nonetheless it’s a great post. 😀👍

  7. This post defies all the stereotypes attached to a bookworm, especially a bookworm that decides to show their love of books online through a blog or bookstagram or any platform, and I’m so glad I read this.<3

  8. Oh my gosh, Sumaiyya! This post is everything that needed to be said and you’ve done it so beautifully. Having seen and experienced some of these issues to an extent, I’m so happy that these have been addressed by you! I completely agree and second everything you’ve stated. 💜

  9. I used to be one of those who used to judge other readers based on how they kept their books or what they read but with time I have grown to realize that no matter how they read or what they read, at least they are reading. I am no one to judge others based on their choices!

    Also I agree with you 100% that bloggers should be paid for the effort and time they spend on writing reviews for the books the publishers send them. It might take some time but if we all take a stand the publishers might come around.

  10. You have started a great forum for thought and discussion here but I’ll just comment on a few of them.

    Ebooks, audiobooks are part of my regular reading life/routine. I feel like a along as you’re reading it doesn’t matter what medium you use to consume your reading. Enjoy reading.

    I purchase books online and I use my library. I love books and will try my best to find as many as I can whenever I can.

  11. This was a really great article. It can be discouraging for those of new to Bookstagram. I’m not great with a camera, I don’t have loads of decor sitting around to beautify my photos, and the lighting in my apartment is terrible.

    I’ve been beating myself up because I haven’t been able to make my feed look as pretty as everyone else’s and it made me almost want to leave Instagram altogether. I don’t read the most modern releases or even buy them, unless it’s an author that I love. I’m also not comfortable showing my face online. I don’t really feel like there’s a place for me in the Bookstagram community, but I decided to keep trying be cause maybe there are people like me out there.

    I don’t care about dog-earing or writing in books, though it’s not something I do myself. I LOVE audiobooks. I use whatever I have handy as a bookmark. I think people should be able to read what they want and talk about it, but I also feel that people shouldn’t be attacked for having unpopular opinions or disagreeing. The Vulture article was bad, but some of the backlash it received and the name calling that was done was just as bad. I have so many mixed feelings. It just seems as though the community isn’t as welcoming if you don’t follow the crowd.

  12. Just coming across this post, and couldn’t agree more. I dog-ear *and* use bookmarks, and I underline things that feel important to me in the text. (At least in books I like and know I want to keep). And I agree 100% about being paid for the service of writing reviews. It’s a bit of a catch 22 that all freelance writers deal with: you need to produce work in order to be noticed/have a portfolio/etc. that could lead to paid gigs, but that involves a lot of free labor. I struggle with this because I do love reading and I love reviewing books and writing about books, so I do want to do it, but I do also need to live and by doing it for free I contribute to the overall culture of writers working for free.

    Great post, thank you!

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