Picturing a year in books on Instagram
Jennifer Lawless used the discipline of social media to read and post about a new book each week
Jennifer Lawless: A book a week has been many things, most often a joy, rarely a chore, but always rewarding and in its own way, transformative.
It happened in a quiet sort of way. Somewhere in the midst of 2017 I felt a bookish malaise creeping in. As one sluggish read morphed into another, the prospect of the dreaded “abandoned read” loomed over each tentative selection. I stared ruefully at a tower of unbroken spines, a wince of “it’s not you, it’s me” about my face, but it was unavoidable: reader’s block had officially set in.
As the perennial wave of New Year resolutions hit in January, hoping to break the impasse I undertook a challenge: read one book each week and record my progress, and my thoughts, on Instagram. The inclusion of an online tracker was essential. Left to my own devices my good intentions were liable to flounder, my enthusiasm dwindling in the fog of life’s various distractions. And so it was, on New Year’s Day I trod cautiously into the fold.
Stepping in with an outsider’s gaze, and what felt like a banner emblazoning my lurker status above my user handle, I was met by a baffling whirlwind of hashtags, stories and shelfies (that’s bookshelf selfies to you and me). #bookstagram was a Brave New World and sure enough, Aldous Huxley had arrived long before I had (56.9k tags and counting).
As I scrolled through the ever-replenshing content of highly curated book photography, I found myself stricken by a condition that was up to that point unknown to me: “feed envy” was a most curious state, a bizarre sort of inferiority complex inflicted by the determined inclination of users to adorn each book photo with a perfectly brewed hot beverage. This feed envy affliction was unfortunately accompanied by a peristent case of side-eye, as I spied across cafes and rows of public transport in a desperate attempt to glean inspiration from the choices of fellow readers.
As a paean to the visual, Instagram may seem an odd choice of platform for writing about books, but it has proven a natural ally to the literary community and a home to readers and writers, booksellers and publishers alike. What at first seemed surprising was less so on reflection. When I think about the books I’ve loved the most, what springs to mind first is a visual: a lasting impression of a story, instigated on the page and conjured in the imagination, or a memory of my own response, a sigh of recognition, a muffled laugh or a furtive tear on my early morning commute – evocations of that most mysterious power embedded in the perfect string of words.
Over the last 12 months I’ve been introduced to a great many characters as they traversed the plains of human plight and endeavour. They have taken me with them to their far-flung landscapes of Indian reservations and Ghanaian tribes, American prisons and Canadian prairies. And they have populated my hours and days with the deepest and most sincere exploration of what it is to be a living soul, or occasionally an unliving soul, on this strange and wondrous planet.
As the year progressed, the books seemed to form a community of their own, characters breaking through the covers to greet each other in a triumph of inter-connectedness. On Trinity’s front square, the ghostly silhouettes of the Mark and Joanne of Belinda McKeon’s Solace might well have looked on as Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Marianne and Connell, renewed the echo of footsteps on the grey cobblestones. Others served as muse, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando breathing life into the Italian Renaissance painter of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, while the nonfiction worlds of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion), The Lonely City (Olivia Laing) and Just Kids (Patti Smith) drew a circle aound the artistic and cultural scenes of New York and LA in the ’60s and ’70s, in which the biggest and boldest names of the era passed through each other’s pages as though walking in and out of rooms.
Themes too interlaced, and time and grief were a thread unspooled over many months of reading. Ishiguro’s English butler made an idol of his restraint and passed the remains of his days pondering on a sacrifice. Deborah Levy, a writer lost, found a way forward in looking back and acknowleding the things she didn’t want to know, while Max Porter’s crow brought a wry smile in spite of itself, and with it a consolation: grief is, in truth, the thing with feathers, swooping in, gliding away. All of this echoing was a reminder that no story is told in isolation.
A book a week has been many things, most often a joy, rarely a chore, but always rewarding and in its own way, transformative. Raising my head above the parapet to record the experience online was at first discomforting, but over time this has been replaced by a sense of pride in the realisation of the challenge I had presented myself.
As another year in books beckons, it promises a focus my initial efforts lacked, as those first few weeks were spent searching for a form that was true to my expression. Once landed upon, the weeks began to roll and it’s difficult now to imagine relinquishing what has become a steady companion in my day-to-day life. While much of my reading life has been defined by a loyalty to fiction, it’s the nonfiction choices that have been a revelation this year, and I aim to explore this and other uncharted genres further next year. Whatever those chosen genres might be, this past year has shown that the reader experience is vast and defies the boundaries of the physical, a transcendent portal between the realm of the familiar and the dreamy world of the unknown.
I’ve collected many quotes along the way this year, but it’s Ali Smith in Winter, the second instalment of her seasonal series, that brings the year to a fitting close: “…whatever being alive is, with all its pasts and presents and futures, it is most itself in the moments when you surface from a depth of numbness or forgetfulness that you didn’t even know you were at, and break the surface.”