Why do celebrities always appear to be reading the same book?
What do Givenchy’s Matthew Williams, Lily-Rose Depp, and Jeff Goldblum have in common? They are all feasting on the same lit.
Every celebrity reads the same book. They share one copy, and it’s passed around like a pair of traveling pants. The dog-eared or Post-It note littered essay collections – from previously little known authors like Chelsea Hodson and Darcie Wilder – appear in the Instagram posts and paparazzi shots of Kendall Jenner and Kaia Gerber. The books are slyly tucked next to a bottle of sunscreen in one; in another, they act as a pulpy coaster for an Aperol Spritz. When Gigi Hadid was photographed palming a copy of Camus’ The Stranger as she exited a fashion show in Paris, The New York Post published an article claiming that books were that season’s “hot new accessories”. We have no option other than to believe these “accessories” actually get read.
Book titles and author names are frequently brought up in celebrity interviews, too, like literacy is an exclusive club when library cards are free. Most recently, Matthew Williams, the incumbent creative director of Givenchy, admitted that he was currently thumbing through a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. It discusses, in 443 pages, the history of humanity. While reading, Williams was thinking “about the very distant past”, according to his SSENSE interview. A time when “if your dad was a blacksmith and you learned to be a blacksmith, you knew you could earn money that way. Now the knowledge we obtain in our lives is not necessarily going to serve our survival in the future. The only way to prepare for that is to be able to adapt on the go, every day with an open mind.”
Adapting to an AI-run future and offering a canned history lesson is what made Harari a New York Times bestseller. His work has been praised by capitalist overlord Bill Gates – who wrote a rapturous recommendation on GatesNotes – browless Trump apologist Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama. But so many more celebrities have been reading this book since its original 2011 publish date. In August last year, I interviewed Jeff Goldblum. Chat turned to dating advice, and he told me to “be myself”, even though the life sciences, he said, tell us that is impossible.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Read Yuval Harari,” Goldblum said matter-of-factly. “The major religion of the last century really has been humanism, which is that there’s…” You get the gist. He read the book. It was unclear whether or not, at the end of our 30 minutes together, Goldblum was giving me real dating advice from the heart or regurgitating the overcooked platitudes of Harari. God, do celebrities even read Amazon reviews?
Again, last October, Lily-Rose Depp told me that she was reading Sapiens and it was “super interesting. It’s, like, super easy to understand.” Her review seemed genuine. It felt like a friend was telling me to pick up a copy of a secular work of extremely popular fiction that I’d somehow missed. The Ayn Rand of opinions masquerading as science. “I feel like a lot of those books on that subject sometimes can make you feel like you’re in school or something, and like, you’re, like, doing homework. And this feels, like, truly like reading for pleasure.”
The celebrity book supply chain is mysterious. How did Lily-Rose Depp, Jeff Goldblum, and Matthew Williams all get the same party goody bag with a copy of Harari’s histrionic opus? Celebrities “seem to gravitate towards books that surface in their social media gaze,” Paul Bogaards, the Executive Vice President of Publicity at Knopf Doubleday whose job it is to get press for books at that publishing house, explained in an email. This could simply mean that Gigi Hadid was following Emma Roberts on Instagram, who frequently posts reading recommendations to her feed.
Another theory goes that Harari’s book has somehow been portioned out by whomever’s job it is to supply celebrities with books.“This is Leigh Haber, who is a book editor at O magazine, so she is my book supplier. She’s my book pimp!” Oprah says in a short Instagram clip last year, lifting the veil on how she comes to find new authors that become bestsellers before getting canceled.
“Celebrities have people for everything,” adds Chris Black, co-founder of Public Announcement. “Sure, some are probably big readers who like to devour new fiction, but having a cool assistant hit McNally Jackson and deliver a pile of the right books to your apartment is priceless. Nothing is chicer than being well-read, especially if the paparazzi happen to catch you with the of-the-moment hardback on a yacht in Sardinia
In December of last year, Kendall Jenner was photographed on a yacht with a copy of Tonight I’m Someone Else, an essay collection by the Brooklyn-based writer and Bennington College professor Chelsea Hodson. By the pool at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc last May, she was snapped reading Darcie Wilder’s debut novel Literally Show Me a Healthy Person. Hodson’s and Wilder’s books sold out on Amazon within 24 hours after the photographs were published. “[My book] had already been selling well and was met with a good reception, but this capitalistic boost benefited me monetarily and, if I do say so myself, her culturally,” Wilder wrote of the event for The Outline.
W magazine revealed that these books, favored by what Wilder deemed “leftist literary creative types”, weren’t her own choices. Rather, they are the result of her own book pimp Ashleah Gonzales, Jenner’s agent at The Society. “As a ‘writer’ myself, I know the power of sharing one’s personal experiences, which is why I sought out young and predominantly female writers,” Gonzales told W.
Jenner’s reading habit really took off last year when she realised books were easier to look at for longer periods than screens. “It’s a form of therapy for me in a way,” she toldW. “It’s kind of nice to focus and look at something that’s not your phone screen.”
Some authors admit that they manufacture their prose with the end goal of it being an accessory. Jarett Kobeck, author of 2016’s I Hate the Internet, self-published that title because he had a hunch way back then that this was true. “The whole way the book [I Hate the Internet] was put together – ignoring its content – was as a fashion object, as something people could pose with on Instagram,” Jarett Kobek shared on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast in 2019.
“It was clear to me with I Hate the Internet, this was a leap forward, this was something that was very different than anything I had done before,” he continued. “I also just had the intimation that, even if that book didn’t have that content, that book with that title still would have sold a couple of thousand copies as a fashion accessory.”
At the moment, Sapiens maintains its dominance at the #14 position on the Amazon charts – possibly the best indicator of a book’s popularity in the age of the Kindle. It has been on the chart for 163 weeks. (#1 is currently Robin Diangelo’s White Fragility.) It’s fantastic that famous people are reading, and even more interesting when they recommend popular novels with all of the self-congratulatory gusto of an off-handed, “Ever heard of Michael Pollan, sweaty?”
Books are just paper, bound by sturdier paper and a bit of glue. They can be cute, colour-coordinated and neatly stacked objets d’art, capitalist vehicles for grandiose ideas that celebrities might not even read; but when they do, they do it on yachts in the sun. Afterwards, they might feel enlightened. To look at one’s bookshelf – the timeless barometer by which one measures if a guy is just a quick fuck or long-term dateable – is to peer into the soul. By proxy, to find out a celeb is reading Yuval Harari is like discovering that Narnia author C.S. Lewis was simply using metaphor to indoctrinate children into Christianity. At least Kendall Jenner is hawking some juicy underground lit.