Reading in Place: staying at home on #bookstagram
Since COVID-19 caused universities to shutter, it seems as though every researcher has had to contend with the upending of their usual routine. The pandemic closed our usual productive spaces like libraries and offices, it has sent us packing home. Our homes are now our live-work-social spaces and research must continue in this new, albeit challenging, way.
It is under these circumstances that I stumbled into a community that reminds me of the joy of a small, physical object: #bookstagram (a pithy short-hand for the online reading community). While I may just be in a corner of my room, I have been able to connect across time and place through novels and a new cohort of booklovers online.
My summer research project concerns local literature and how authors from Hamilton relate to the landscape. Landscape here refers to the physical environment–from large expanses of natural and urban areas to individual non-human lives–and how human social and individual lives interact with these spaces. However, the interdisciplinary field of place studies also reminds that place (perhaps unlike “landscape”) includes the emotional, intellectual, social, and beyond as elements that contribute to a cohesive “place” created through interaction (Weik von Mossner 568).
Not only are ideas about place developed through our social and personal relationships to it but literature also prompts us to reimagine our placeness. Fictional narratives encode and inform our cultural practices and feelings about places and the people who inhabit them (Bulfin 142).
With the connection between narrative and place in mind, I searched local bookshops for authors from the same city in which I live and came across paper-bound stories of a shared home. These books, which I tabbed with colourful post-its, are necessarily physical objects. I’ve dog-eared the pages, flipped through and smelled the soft paper, and read them predominantly on my backyard hammock. Walter Benjamin notes that the physical object of the book within the collection has an aesthetic and relational value outside of its utilitarian function (60). Readers and collectors, therefore, are encouraged to appreciate the book as a physical object that has value beyond the story, instead as decoration, artifact, and more.
Moreover, physical experiences not only characterize my relationship to the books I read, but also my understanding of the surrounding place in which I read them. My yard, through the reading practice, became a space with layers of memories, ideas, and relationships between myself, others, and even the more-than-human world.
Still, despite my emphasis on physicality, I began my research during a global pandemic which dictates that we #stayhome. The necessary disconnect from place and others has posed some challenges, but it has also encouraged new and inventive research questions.
The thriving community of book-lovers online has helped bridge the disconnect brought on by remote work. While I cannot connect with friends and colleagues to discuss research ideas as I usually would, I have felt a part of a community through a shared reading list. For example, one of my favourite accounts is Noelle Gallagher’s, a MA student, #bookstagramer, and ‘booktuber’ (book youtuber). A few friends and I, all followers of the same book accounts, decided to read a book together that had been suggested by Noelle. Together (although the bookstagramer’s participation was one-sided and done unknowingly), we entered into a collective reading practice. While we could not be together, we could connect over our individual physical objects, the books, and share images and ideas.
By reading with the online book community I found that I could transgress some of the limits of physicality. Users posted images of their books as they were reading them and where they were doing so, thereby creating a new conceptualization of what it is to read critically together, while apart, and how physical spaces can be communicated without physical presence. My reading practices and those of the accounts I follow became interwoven, which I think has not only improved my critical reading practices but has also brought joy to my research process, something that has been sorely lacking since the pandemic began.
As I interact more with the digital space it has opened up new opportunities to connect with a community that is engaged with physical spaces and objects. When reading for my research projects, I can snap a picture of the book and share it with other readers online, reminding that not only is my reading located within a specific physical site, but that I am also able to connect in other ways through my reading practices.
Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1968, pp. 59-67.
Bulfin, Ailise. “Popular culture and the “new human condition”: Catastrophe narratives and climate change.” Global and Planetary Change, vol 156, 2017, pp. 140-146, doi:10.1016/2017.03.002
Weik von Mossner, Alexa. “Why We Care about (Non)fictional Places: Empathy, Character, and Narrative Environment.” Poetics Today, vol. 40, no. 3, 2019, pp. 559-577. DOI 10.1215/03335372-7558150