Havens for heavenly hermitude

An Cailín Rua

COSY AESTHETIC An instagram pic posted by popular bookfluencer @amysbookshelf.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Being unable to work for a period of time last year allowed for a bit of self-reflection, and a bit of time to read. As a child, I was the epitome of a bookworm. Three decades ago, I was insufferably uncool, and to this day, there is a big gap in my ’80s children’s TV classics knowledge, because inevitably, instead of embracing the brand new ’80s era of technicolour cartoons, I was lying around somewhere with my nose stuck in a book. In the modern era, there has been a direct correlation between the increase in my screen time and the decrease in my book time, and I suspect I am not alone.
Last year saw me revive the habit a bit, with a total of 17 books in the last six months of the year. For 2023, I set myself a fairly conservative challenge of 24 books for the full year, taking other commitments into account.
Surely I can manage to put my phone aside for the time it took to read half a book a week. But how to decide what to read? And this is where technology inserts itself into the situation, and it is fascinating to consider how the online world is influencing our offline reading habits.
I would be lying if I said my Instagram habit hadn’t influenced my drive to read more and indeed, rekindled my love of reading. Use of the #Bookstagram hashtag is in the tens of millions on the platform, and I follow quite a few ‘bookstagramers’ who use the platform to share their reads and reviews. I have been influenced to discover some remarkable books, as well as some real clangers, by watching what others read. It’s fun. But with everything social media related, there is a downside.
Reading on social media is now a trend and spawning a whole new language. There are ‘bookstagrammers’ and ‘Booktok’. Photos of ‘shelfies’ (I did not coin this heinous term) abound, where on their ‘grids’, prolific readers present pictures of towering piles of tasteful tomes in their #TBR (the yet to-be-read pile, which I admit accounts for at least 40 percent of the books in this house). These images often include common elements: slick graphics, scented candles, large mugs of hot beverages, expensive knitted blankets. Your book aesthetic matters on social media if you aspire to be a ‘bookfluencer’.
When books and technology combine, reading can become competitive, performative, and part of a personal branding exercise. Use of reading sites like Goodreads and Storygraph, while great for tracking and inspiration, can also lead to rushed reading. Someone I follow posted a ‘January Reads’ roundup a few days ago with eighteen (18!) books. How?
Watching Insta speedreaders tear through books can really make one question one’s own productivity. How we consume books is also up for (sometimes rigorous) debate. Does listening to a book really count as reading – is it cheating, or is it simply making books more accessible? Or who really cares?
And the reading frenzy also lends itself to the problem of consumerism – the more we read, the more we buy, and often, we are buying from sites like Amazon and Book Depository, feeding the corporate behemoths, rather than supporting our local bookstores.
But does any of this matter, if more people are reading more books?
In the midst of this reading evolution remains one constant. The library. And the real purpose of this meandering column is to pay tribute to one of the most wonderful and precious resources we could dream of having in our communities.
There is a sense sometimes that the library is a relic of bygone days, when in reality, it is one of the most innovative, progressive public services we have. In your local library, a social and learning space, you can access books (obviously) – lots and lots of lovely, free books – from all around Ireland, not just your local branch. But you can also access free Wi-Fi, affordable printing, 3D printing, CDs, DVDs, musical instruments, free talks and events, free newspapers and magazines, art exhibitions and more.
If you, like me, are inclined towards hermitude, you don’t even have to leave your house. Once you have registered with the library, you can access hundreds of thousands of e-books and audiobooks via Borrowbox – free for library users. You can create a wishlist and reserve your books – physical or electronic, to be notified when they are available. The library is a treasure trove, and here in Mayo, a treat to visit in person.
And guess what? In Mayo, our Library service boasts an excellent – and entertaining – presence on social media. The perfect combination of the old and the new. Who knew?