I have recently had occasion to start thinking about the Instagram account @hotdudesreading again, after many years without doing so. I wondered whether the account still existed, whether there were new hot dudes reading new hot dude books.
It does and there are.
I’ve known about the @hotdudesreading account for several years now. It’s always been a thing that existed, like photos of tie-dye bagels or of women’s backs and their hands reaching backwards existed. I remember rolling my eyes a little bit when the Hot Dudes Reading book came out and then wondering how it came to be. Did the hot guys give their permission? How did the book-making people find the once-nameless hot dudes? How did the hot dudes feel about being the poster children for something that a lot of us might argue is so commonplace as to be utterly banal? There is no hot dudes texting or hot dudes crossing the street. I’ve as yet never heard of hot dudes parking their car or hot dudes petting their dogs. Why are hot dudes reading so…hot?
Hot dudes reading had its heyday in, scientifically speaking, I’m going to say 2015–2016ish. I first encountered the hot dudes reading when my partner’s brother found out through friends that he, in fact, was a hot dude reading. He thought it was funny, and I’m sure a little flattering, and when I asked him what he was reading when the photo was taken he said “uh I think I was reading a gamer manual lol.” His self-aware “lol” is an important point. He knew that the reality of his reading material ran counter to the essential fantasy of the Instagram account. (I will say that he is, in fact, a man who also reads LITERATURE, not just gamer manuals.)
Here’s the thing about the hot dudes. The books they’re reading in the photos are almost never discernible. Could it be, @hotdudesreading stewards, that if we saw the books they were reading we would think them less hot? Because I can say that after watching a Good Morning America segment featuring five of the hot dudes’ book recommendations and hearing them speak about their selections, I found them less hot. Good Morning America effectively ruined the facade of their book-induced hotness. Before I knew that one of the hot dudes was reading David Baldacci’s latest crime thriller (no judgement, but it’s far from my own taste), I could imagine that he was reading Jane Austen or maybe The Idiot by Elif Batuman.
I think, in naming my preferences for what I would like to imagine them reading is key to the underlying psychology of why we find the hot dudes so hot. I like the idea of hunkyish men reading those stereotypically “feminine” books. One of them is Jane Austen and one of them is pink. I like that.
Reading has come to be viewed as a more “feminine” activity; there’s a reason Matilda is Matilda and Charlie is the Chocolate Factory. I think what we find hot about them is that they’re doing this (albeit utterly minimally) gender norm–disrupting activity in public. I bet hot dudes crocheting would be way more popular than hot dudes listening to music. Just like I am guessing @hotdudesreading is followed by way more straight women than gay men (in fact, the first line of the marketing copy for the Hot Dudes Reading book is “Humans of New York meets Porn for Women”). It’s the disruption that’s hot. It’s that we expect to see women on the subway reading, but we don’t expect hunky men, nay dudes.
Even the name hotDUDESreading plays up the apparent gender disparity. Even if it were less hetero, hot people reading could never work. Women reading are lost in the clouds, are dreamers. See Jo March, see Rory Gilmore, see Matilda. The trope of the hot woman reading peaked with the hot librarian. And that’s more about an artificial power imbalance than it is about the reading (in fact that illustrates my point further because a library, a place of books and reading, was one of the only places that popular culture can conceive of a woman being in charge of men). Dudes are bros. They play lacrosse and drink Budweiser. Or whatever. Pool and PBR. Hockey and Hefeweizen. Even men might read. Dudes definitely don’t.
So back to the central question: do the hot dudes know they’re being hot? Is this performative hotness?
When asked, on Good Morning America, how they felt about being the hot dudes reading, the guys collectively mumbled something like, “it’s pretty cool, awesome, like it, cowabunga dude” (I’m paraphrasing). Further, the hot dudes seemed tone deaf to the fact that David Baldacci or Grit by Angela Duckworth aren’t “hot” choices. For one, the literary world is sometimes snobbish about thrillers and for two, it doesn’t feel subversive for a dude to read David Baldacci or about passion and perseverance in the workplace!
Which leads me to conclude that though the dudes like being hot, they don’t really, truly understand WHY they’re being hot.
To this day, @hotdudesreading and I have several mutual Instagram friends. They still have 1.1 million followers. But we are at peak #Bookstagram and @hotdudesreading has, I think, faded into the background. My idea of gender disruption being the central tenet of the @hotdudesreading phenomenon is far from groundbreaking. But when I started wondering what happened to those hot dudes, and whether they knew they were hot dudes, I did not know where my journey would take me. As it turns out, it’s brought me to this: if you intentionally do something hot and we know it’s intentional, it’s not hot. But, also, if you don’t understand why the thing you’re doing is hot, you might make it less hot by accident.
Final point: if you want to look hot reading, read The Idiot by Elif Batuman.