Back in April, The New York Times noted an Instagram trend: NYRB Classics were popping up everywhere. The imprint, issued by the New York Review of Books, “specializes in reissuing volumes that have fallen out of print or been otherwise neglected,” the Times reported, yet the books have now “become design objects and totems of intellectual status.”
What attracted people to this relatively obscure set of books? Their design. Their dimensions (in photos shot from above) are identical, their cover layouts are standardized. But their spines are varying, seemingly random, colors. Arranged together — for instance, on a shelf — they are chaos within limits, and perfectly Instagrammable.
This was, by all appearances, unintentional. The NYRB Classics line didn’t set out to be an Instagram favorite; they’ve looked the same for ages. But that reversal of intent might now be occurring elsewhere in the publishing world as, more and more, book jackets are designed with social media in mind.
Of course, books aren’t off-limits as Instagrammable objects. Aesthetic appreciation of books might be more worthwhile than fetishizing other consumer products. Yet, literary purists are likely depressed by the idea that book covers could be designed to be purposefully displayed as totems — that is, as reflections of the reader’s taste and style — without an awareness of the words inside. After all, whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover?
But maybe all is not lost. Maybe sharing book covers on Instagram isn’t just about projecting intellect or lifestyle. Maybe books — as objects used to display one’s taste — are fundamentally different from furniture or clothes. Maybe there’s more beneath the filter.