There’s a tendency to sum up entire social media platforms based on their most annoying users: Tweeters sharing bad takes, Facebookers spreading bad info, YouTubers complaining about YouTube, etc. But every platform has a book section, and, therefore, at least some value in my mind.
In recent decades I’ve enjoyed the ways social media has enhanced my reading experience with recommendations, discussions and, especially on a certain mean-spirited subreddit with an unprintable name, jokes about certain authors and their fans. For every illuminating literary post on Reddit, there’s a “what’s your favorite book?” thread dominated by The Martian. (I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m saying Redditors should read more books.)
I’ve also enjoyed a few personal, thoughtful video book reviews on YouTube. For the time being, Twitter is a decent place for new authors to reveal their book jackets and to start arguments with their fan base for the hell of it. I kinda like Goodreads to see what my friends are reading, but Amazon owns it so it’s sus on principle.
A recent article in Publishers Weekly announced that book sales went up 9% last year. Why? PW cites the pandemic (makes sense), celebrity book clubs and recs (Reese, Oprah, Hermione, etc.), and of course “new social media phenomena like #BookTok.”
Sigh. I don’t need another distracting app in my life, but fine. Downloading TikTok. Doomscrolling. OK.
So this is BookTok. Lots of dust jackets. Ring-lit stacks. Color-coded shelves. A running gag about people who will use anything as a bookmark: leaf, backpack, another book, dog etc. It’s surprising how many people use those thin Post-it strips to denote favorite or important passages. I might get into that. Right now I take photos of pages I like then never look at them again.
Taylor Jenkins Reid and Madeline Miller appear to have quite a following on BookTok. Ocean Vuong, Sally Rooney, and Matt Haig, too. But genre fiction is everywhere, especially romance, YA, and fantasy. “Only 150 pages in and already gagging at how much this book got me geeking,” says one user about a novel by Christina Lauren (aka best-selling romance duo/BFFs Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings).
Here’s a post called “books to read when you hate reading but want to get into it” and another called “books I think everyone should read at least once in their life.” Lists like these almost always save a spot for YA/romance author Colleen Hoover, who’s gone from self-publishing to the best-sellers list over the past 10 years, though users always include a content warning: 💔 + 😭.
Weirdly, the moment I downloaded TikTok I started getting some needy alerts from Instagram — this person is going live, that friend just uploaded a new story. Aw. I’m sorry, Bookstagram. BRT.
And now, here are some new books guaranteed to stimulate your brain and inspire some content 🤮.
Trust, Hernan Diaz
“Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise.” So begins Hernan Diaz’s witty and elegant second novel, which somewhat Rashomon-ically unpacks the life story of an otherwise unremarkable young man who decides to turn an already sizable inheritance into a colossal fortune on Wall Street, for no better reason than “a hunger at his core.” Set in the 1920s (before and after they were Roaring), Trust is a multifaceted saga of class, wealth, and mythmaking that should resonate with today’s capitalism-questioning readers. Buy stock in Diaz now; his first novel, 2017′s In The Distance, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Trust looks like another winner. (Riverhead, $28, May 3)
The Premonitions Bureau: A True Account of Death Foretold, Sam Knight
Whenever catastrophe strikes — a crash, a war, a pandemic — a hundred lonely voices cry out, “I told you so.” Mostly it’s conspiracy gnats and stopped-clock Cassandras, but sometimes it’s just some regular schmo who had a nightmare and then woke up to watch it come true. That seems to be what happened in 1966: An avalanche of coal-mining waste crushed a school in a small British town, killing 144 people, and one music teacher saw it coming. Inspired by this story and others like it, a journalist and a psychiatrist soon founded the Premonitions Bureau and began soliciting stories from accidental clairvoyants all over the U.K. Would they find meaning in the data? Could disasters be prevented? If so, what does this say about time itself? Like his subjects, New Yorker writer Sam Knight is driven by intrepid curiosity in his fast-paced and fascinating nonfiction debut. (Penguin Press, $28, May 3)
Siren Queen, Nghi Vo
It’s a clever bit of craftsmanship the way Nghi Vo braids the fantastical into the earthly in her story of a queer Chinese American actress breaking into the movie biz at the dawn of the talkie era. Especially in the early going, readers may find themselves puzzling to separate the merely metaphorical from the terribly tangible in this dreamy, mystical version of Old Hollywood, a place where names have power, celebrity is a transformative curse, and fiendish studio execs lock up disposable starlets in Faustian contracts. Indeed, monsters abound in Siren Queen; the trick is to align yourself with the right ones, and become one yourself if necessary. (Tordotcom, $26.99, May 10)
You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty, Akwaeke Emezi
Akwaeke Emezi is probably best known for their best-selling 2020 literary novel The Death of Vivek Oji, but you really can find the trans Nigerian-born author all over the bookshop: memoirs, poetry, speculative YA, etc. With the hot and heavy new You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty — a title borrowed from the lyrics of drama-pop band Florence + The Machine — Emezi slides into the romance section like it’s your DMs. At once an emotional journey and a sexy romp,You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty introduces us to the instantly likable Feyi, a hot-and-she-knows-it widow who does an impulsive cannonball back into the dating pool five years after losing her husband. (Atria, $27, May 24)
Either/Or, Elif Batuman
Though Elif Batuman’s novels stretch the bounds of the typical “coming-of-age novel” — their narrator is, at least legally speaking, an adult — 2017′s The Idiot and its sublime new sequel have that same Dickens/Wonder Years-y vibe of a watching an earnest, malleable naïf make her way in a world that’s fascinating, confusing, and heartbreaking. Perhaps we’ve never been to Harvard or Hungary, and never spent much time studying Dostoyevsky or Kierkegaard (I for one have done none of these things), we can still recognize something of ourselves in Selin and want good things for her. More than that, we want her to keep being herself: sincere, curious, and uninfected by cynicism. Do you need to read the first book to read the second? Nobody can make you do anything, but yes: Read both. (Penguin Press, $27, May 24)
Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹ́mi O Táíwò
The Georgetown philosophy professor and author of Reconsidering Reparations, (released in January) here dissects the ways important conversations about race, opportunity, and capitalism are derailed by bad actors, stifling systems and uninterrogated norms. Elite Capture is lean and direct, and requires close reading. (Haymarket, $16.95, May 3)
The Third Person, Emma Grove
This hefty graphic memoir by Emma Grove recounts the trans artist/author’s therapy sessions which not only dug up memories from a dark past, but also led to a dissociative identity disorder diagnosis as well. The Third Person features 900-plus pages of simple black-and-white drawings, but only your arms will get tired. (Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95, May 3)
Companion Piece, Ali Smith
Ali Smith adds a surprising fifth novel to her COVID-inspired Seasonal Quartet series. What comes after Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer? The aptly titled Companion Piece, of course, a distinct but worthy addition full of jokes, puns, and parables to make sense of the modern pandemic age. The Guardian (U.K.) calls it “a lockdown story of wayward genius.” (Pantheon, $28, May 3)
There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness, Carlo Rovelli
The best-selling physicist and storyteller returns with a collection of engrossing essays on life, the universe, and everything. As always, Rovelli draws on history and humor to illustrate the deeply theoretical, be it the nature of time or the consciousness of octopuses. (Riverhead, $26, May 10)
Sleepwalk, Dan Chaon
A micro-dosing henchman on retainer for some very bad people recalls his wild, murderous career while driving cross-country and maybe doing some more murdering. There’s plenty of heart and humor in Chaon’s slyly dystopian thriller, and our narrator’s kind of a likeable dude despite, you know, all that murdering. (Henry Holt and Co., $27.99, May 24)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer on the first Sunday of the month.