Back-Talking The Tone Police: Book People Are Not Your Enemy

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Tika Viteri

Staff Writer

Tika writes from her home office in Pittsburgh, PA, accompanied by 3 grey cats and many, many plants. When not plonking away on a keyboard, she can be found painting, knitting, gardening, and casting the occasional spell or two -- all usually accompanied by a glass of wine.

Jezebel recently published an article by Joanna Mang titled “We Have To Save Books From the Book People,” and I am here to cock my head to the right, raise a quizzical eyebrow, purse my lips a little, and say, “Excuse?”

Join me, dear reader, as we try to figure out why people who post book spine poetry are suddenly Enemies of the Book.

Mang’s main point, if I am reading it correctly, is two-fold. First, Book People are shallow Bookstagramers who prefer complaining about the cis het white male canon, and hating on F. Scott Fitzgerald in particular, to any kind of Mang-approved literary aficionado behavior, defined as writing letters to former teachers thanking them for teaching Crime and Punishment. (I refuse to make the obvious joke here but feel free to make your own.) Second, well. Y’all. I don’t know if you know, but there are books on state education lists, and those lists are hundreds of books long! but! Teachers still choose The Great Gatsby and Lolita, so obviously those texts have some Deep Literary Meaning and calling them out as also problematic makes you a Book Person, and therefore someone from whom the beloved books must be saved. Also, if you hated TGG or The Scarlet Letter in high school, it’s your own fault and you clearly have no standards.

What makes you a Book Person, and therefore, someone we should all unfollow on Twitter immediately? Forgive me as I quote a full paragraph:

A Book Person participates in book culture. Book People refer to themselves as “bookworms” and post Bookstagrams of their “stacks.” They tend towards language like “I love this so hard” or “this gave me all the feels” and enjoy gentle memes about buying more books than they can read and the travesty of dog-eared pages. They build Christmas trees out of books. They write reviews on Goodreads and read book blogs and use the hashtag #amreading when they are reading. They have TBR (to be read) lists and admit to DNFing (did not finish). They watch BookTube and BookTok. They love a stuffed shelf but don’t reject audiobooks and e-readers; to a Book Person, reading is reading is reading.

Joanna Mang, Jezebel

If you’re feeling confused, that seems reasonable. I’m not completely sure why those things are bad either — they sound cozy and fun to me. What’s more, I don’t quite understand why Mang’s precious canon is suddenly in need of rescuing from a group that, by her own definition, sounds like the harmless, smiling yellow Labrador of the internet. What exactly is our crime? Because I’m pretty sure that while #AmReading is literally false (you’re not reading, you’re typing!), it’s not worth getting so twisted over that you call people out for posting on their own social media and (GASP) enjoying audiobooks and ebooks.

I enjoy The Great Gatsby, and I enjoyed teaching it to my students when I taught high school. The students, for the most part, seemed to enjoy it too — especially when we started comparing love triangles and talking about how it can be mapped onto high school life. You’ve got your jumped-ups, your bougies, your mysterious new guy in town, and a river of champagne (please drink responsibly and legally). Not to mention a questionable movie with — in my opinion — excellent musical choices. Hey, I like what I like.

But I didn’t always. When I started teaching, I had Very Serious Opinions about What Students Should Read. As I progressed in my teaching career, however, I realized that what we were reading wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that students were reading. That is, the reason many adults don’t read is that they were forced to read books they didn’t identify with, and thus it turned them off of reading. What if instead, we tried to bridge the gap and teach them to see the connections between what was on the page and what movie they went to see last weekend? And that, my friends, is how I started giving extra credit for clever book reports about the similarities between Twilight and Gatsby.

But here’s the thing: literally none of that matters to our author because I am a Book Person, not a Reader (the difference is that “a reader is someone in the habit of reading. A Book Person has turned that into an identity,” whatever that means) and therefore my opinion on the modern experience of hallucinating while staring at dead trees is inadmissible.

I’m not actually entirely sure why we’re tone-policing book culture here, and I find it both insulting and shitty. Mang seems to be asserting that anyone who posts a review on Goodreads is a…what? A book poser? Not a Reader? That’s weird, since I (probably) read the book in order to post a review, but whatever. That if someone says they don’t like a book — in “capitalized, weirdly baroque curse words” (oddly specific? Who hurt you, Joanna?) — it’s not interesting or worthy of notice, because books aren’t holy — a fact we are informed of after 1900 words about how anyone who didn’t like Gatsby is probably digging out a book vault in a first edition of Catcher in the Rye at this. very. moment.

The irony, like the article’s poorly constructed point, is two-fold. The first being being that Mang noticed. A LOT. And after sleeping on why this article bothered me so much, I think I’ve hit on the second irony: Mang appears to believe that Book People are not only playing identity politics with books, posturing about our love of the written (etc.) word, but also attempting to gate-keep who should or shouldn’t read what. It smells a lot of “methinks the author doth protest too much,” given that almost all of the charges she lays at our door are about how individuals feel about books, as opposed to what Mang is doing: ascribing feelings and opinions to an entire diverse group of people and telling us that our actions make our concerns about the canon not worth listening to.

I wonder what she’d say if she knew I have five (5) book-related tattoos…