trollope - a commentaryAs a reader who’s deeply interested in what other people – and especially young people – are reading and why, how could I not be fascinated by the teeming subset of YouTube known as BookTube? That’s the sprawling (and constantly growing) community of channels on YouTube devoted entirely to books – book reviews, book discussions, bookshelf tours, book-related ‘tags’ (in which somebody comes up with a challenge or theme for a particular video and then ‘tags’ other BookTubers to make videos on that same theme), and dozens of other fun things.

BookTube is an extremely welcoming place – every week, new BookTubers open channels of their own and step out onto the public stage with one or two videos and no subscribers, and the BookTube community enthusiastically embraces them. The most established BookTubers are not a bit less enthusiastic and approachable than the rawest newcomers. It’s very warming to see.

Of course, it’s not all chocolates and chardonnay. If you watch enough BookTube – and I watch a lot of it – you’ll quickly notice some of its annoying traits. Some of these annoying traits are common to vast swaths of YouTube in general: plenty of amateurs don’t put enough planning into their videos – they fumble with dates and facts and then decide, for utterly mysterious reasons, to leave the fumbling intact in the editing; plenty of people – experts and amateurs alike – don’t pay enough attention to the shape and substance of what they’re saying; people start with high hopes and then fall into long silent months of laziness.

But BookTube also has some annoying traits peculiar to itself! Some are superficial – the foremost being the weird, necrotic three tales from the sketch-bookpreponderance of Young Adult fiction. 99 percent of all BookTubers are adults, and yet 99 percent of the books they all talk about are YA titles written for children (and John Green is the god they all worship – let’s not even get started on that). It’s just such a leaden feeling, opening a new BookTuber video and watching the host say, “Guys! I just finished a book that was SO GOOD, I can’t wait to tell you about it” – and then they hold up a copy of Divergent. You click on a new BookTuber channel and there they are looking fresh and happy – and behind them, lovingly ordered on their bookshelves, are all the Harry Potter books in hardcover, all the “Hunger Games” books in hardcover – in other words, all the same books, all neatly arranged in hardcover. It’s such a lockstep environment that it becomes genuinely startling to see somebody talking about a book written for adults (more power, then, to channels like Eagle’s Books https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_MW28EgNTnqdWtK-rM2ag or The Bibliophile https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjlkQ_78fEt0ToXXQ2S_hvA or Jason Purcell at The Heavy Blanks https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5Bfb1r6sVGCqgCg_p9xMGQ or Emma Gorowski at the catchily-titled Emma Gorowski https://www.youtube.com/user/emgorowski )

And actually, there’s an aspect of that lockstep environment that bothers me even more than the odd spectacle of so many adults enthusing so energetically about books written for children, and it’s the broader idea that everybody reads in the same way. There are unspoken but fairly rigid taxonomic fences all around BookTube – there’s a workaday, slightly grumbling adherence to an identical conception of what readers do and what they are. They all spend too much samuel johnson - bate -covermoney on books; they all have a corseted agreement as to what books are good and what books are bad; they’re all resolutely monoglot; they all have something called a TBR list – a list, a pile, of books “to be read.” They’re all dutiful grinders-away on Goodreads, keeping track of the number of books they read, the pages they’re on, etc. In short, there’s a clubbishness to it all that strikes me as the exact opposite of what real reading is.

Although maybe not what it should be. Maybe that’s the allure of BookTube for me: it dramatizes a version of the reading life that’s bright, happy, friendly, tame … welcoming, in precisely the way that the anarchic Wild West of reading almost never is, welcoming in the way that so many self-taught readers in their solitary bedrooms don’t associate with the life. I look at the landscape of BookTube and see all these happy, including people creating a uniform reading-world, and I wonder if I’d have come to reading much sooner than I did if such a reading-world had ever existed in reality.

I think the two most signature demonstrations of that welcoming world are first the aforementioned bookshelf-tours (what reader doesn’t love to snoop – clandestinely or otherwise – at the book collections of penguin the king's wartheir friends?) and second the prevalence of something called the ‘book haul.’ These videos – always a popular choice for BookTubers – feature the host plopping in front of the camera the latest pile of books they’ve acquired and talking about how excited they are about them all, why they bought them, and so on.

I love watching book-haul videos. I understand that electric excitement, the infectious ‘look what I just got’ burst of happiness. I feel it myself every time I get back home bent double under a load of new books – I don’t just want to read the books (although I do, and I do – I’m a stranger to the very idea of a “TBR” pile), I want to share the joy of acquiring them, especially with like-minded book-acquirers. If had a BookTube channel, I think I’d do a lot of ‘book haul’ videos.

I don’t have a BookTube channel, mainly because I lack even the rudimentary technical skills necessary to record, edit, and upload videos (but also because I don’t, let’s say, have the BookTube aesthetic  – they’re almost universally young and good-looking)(vloggers like Mickeleh being exceedingly rare). But I thought just this once I’d try my hand at doing a book haul, if only the written, Stevereads version!

book-haul early april 2014Unlike most BookTubers, I get a lot of books – an average of ten a day on normal weekdays, either at the various used-book venues of Boston or through the mail from publishers. This is one of those days – a haul from April 2014 consisting of 16 books, half of them new releases (in this case, delightfully, a batch of romance titles) and half of them used books from the aforementioned used-item venues. The romance novels are bright and colorful, of course, and the used books in this case are some choice ‘finds’ – a slim and well-illustrated volume of the three most famous stories from Washington Irving’s Sketch-book, a squat, handy paperback of Bate’s fantastic biography of Samuel Johnson, and – in a happy coincidence – a very pretty new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, plus a meaty-looking commentary on the writing of Anthony Trollope, a Penguin Classic of Shen Fu’s bleakly intelligent Six Records of a Floating Life, and lucy and the book haul - april 2014Michael Behe’s controversial creationist tract, Darwin’s Black Box. And there’s the highlight of this particular haul, a lovely two-volume Penguin edition of C. V. Wedgwood’s fantastic companion volumes about the English Revolution, The King’s Peace and The King’s War. I’ve had those two books (and their much-shorter coda, A Coffin for King Charles). It’s not often that the used-book section of any ‘book haul’ of mine feels so full of spot-in discoveries, books I’m certainly I’ll be keeping as opposed to cycling through rather quickly. It’s a great feeling, especially since as much as I’m enjoying all those romances, I knew from the start that I probably wouldn’t be keeping any of them.

Needless to say, I heartily recommend all those used books! That’s another thing they do all the time over on BookTube.

  • Robert

    I just read the Bate bio of Johnson, on your recommendation from a past blog post (or possibly from the review column, I don’t remember) and it was magnificent.

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