Half of the fun in reading a book lies in going to a bookshop and browsing through the titles, no matter if you are buying them or not. When Amazon replaced bookshops, book-browsers took to social media sites to moon over gleaming first-edition covers, fresh from the oven.
Follow any one of the many book-related hashtags on Instagram and what shows up is an assembly line of photographs, all exquisitely composed. The featured books are usually collectors’ editions, the filters used in the photographs cover them in a warm glow and the frame often includes a brooding cat or a steaming coffee mug, sometimes both. But the story does not end with the photographs: social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and even Youtube are playing a significant role in connecting book-lovers across the world.
“I started using Instagram when I was in between jobs,” says Arpita Bhattacharya, one of the ‘bookstagrammers’ who has been using the platform to build an online community of book-lovers. To connect with people who love classics as much as she does, Bhattacharya started sharing reviews and vignettes of her life — particularly those related to how she nurtures the reading habit in her daughter. Bhattacharya is also part of an online Charles Dickens book club which reads one Dickens novel every month and discusses it.
The connections that are struck online don’t die in cyberspace. When Mumbai-based Nirav Mehta joined the Facebook group, ‘Book Deals for Broke Bibliophiles’, all he had in mind was finding some cheap books. But the online community soon translated into offline reading groups in different parts of the country.
“At the first meeting of the group in Mumbai on April 16, 2016, just 11 people showed up. Nowadays, the average attendance is double that number,” says Mehta. But coordinating these get-togethers is something of a challenge, he adds. The group usually tries to restrict the number of attendees to 20 because of space constraints.
Recently, Mehta started ‘The Regional Literature Book Club’ group on Facebook to encourage readers to explore literary works in Indian languages. Pusthagram, an Instagram account set up as a book club focusing on Malayalam books, is another example of regional-language readers getting a space for themselves on global platforms.
Just as online portals moved offline, the reverse too happened. Books On Toast, which started as a community for readers that organised book-themed events and donation drives, moved to Youtube in 2017. Its co-founders Sharin Bhatti and Anuya Jakatdar host book-themed episodes, with guests chipping in regularly.
Interestingly, although the medium is digital, there is a leaning towards physical books rather than ebooks or Kindles. Audio books users are virtually nil. The reason is evident — in the digital space, making reading look glamorous is as important as what you are reading.
But that needn’t always be the case, says Tanvee Ubale, a Ph.D student who regularly shares her thoughts on the books she is reading on Instagram. Her Instagram bio reads ‘I could click staged pictures, but then again, I am lazy’.
“I read to unwind,” she says. “I am not here for followers or fame. I’d rather have a nice conversation with people on books than promoting a new book on the market.”