Reading the Riot Act: Is “Booktivism” an Effective Form of Protest?

Reading the Riot Act: Is “Booktivism” an Effective Form of Protest?

In an era of hashtag activism, craftivism and culture jamming, is “booktivism” still an effective form of protest?

This article appears in Vol. 33:

be no literary prizes for the observation that books
shape the way we think and act. Emperor Qin Shi Huang knew it in
213 BCE when he ordered the burning of existing history and
philosophy texts after unifying China. So did Spanish conquistadors
who destroyed Maya codices in 1560s Yucatán, and Nazi student
unions that torched the works of Karl Marx among some 25,000 books
in 1933. Just last year, pro-democracy titles were pulled from Hong
Kong libraries under China’s new national security law. You think
the pen is as mighty as the sword? I think that’s an

More than pawns of repression, books positively unite
communities – the Bible and Qur’an are obvious examples, as are
Oprah’s Book Club and Goodreads’ 90 million members who congregate
on boards themed around armchair travel, Doctor Who roleplay,
historical fiction, and such.

“Reading is a great unifier,” says Sheree Milli, reflecting on
the difficulty to make connections as an adult. In 2017 she started
Ladies Lit Squad, a London-based “girl power”
community that discusses books by female-identifying authors in
venues such as The Hoxton and AllBright. “It’s a supportive space;
members share deep secrets,” she continues. “Parts of the literary
world can be serious and chin-strokey, but we’re pretty down to
earth. One month we’ll read a classic, the next a Jilly Cooper

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea.

Roald Dahl, Matilda

Yet it’s the titles that make us question the status quo I find
really interesting. “Booktivism” was first shouted about on a
big(ish) stage in Washington, 2013, when healthcare reformers
presented a blueprint for book
to remedy disease-mongering – that being convincing
people they are sick as a way of marketing drugs. “End the meeting
with action steps,” the guide suggests. “Write to your
congressperson. Set up a petition. Organise an event.”

The portmanteau has a clicky, 21st-century refrain, but the
marriage of books and radical ideas isn’t new. For centuries,
literature has dismantled and rebuilt the architecture of society,
challenged constructions of class, race and gender, exposed
injustice, shifted our ideological foundations. Consider Rights of
Man by Thomas Paine, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring. These texts aren’t merely confined to the
non-fiction section. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and To Kill a
Mockingbird all hold up a mirror to humanity at its very worst, and
say: do better.

It’s subjective stuff. We open books with our mental shelves
crammed with preconceptions – a reading lens of sorts. The Female
Eunuch might have been sacred to Seventies feminism, but Greer’s
attack on trans women has aged as well as asbestos.

Some of us have struggled to get stuck into books during
lockdown, but a 2020 study shows others are ploughing through them,
the time between the covers jumping from around three hours a week
to six. It wasn’t only loo roll we were stockpiling before the
first lockdown; Waterstones enjoyed a 400-per-cent hike in online
sales. As high streets shut, ebooks flew off virtual shelves.

Yes, we had more spare time, needed more escapism. But I don’t
think it’s uncoincidental this has happened when calls for
compassion, justice and reform are louder than many of us have
experienced. Traditional lobbying and demonstrations have been
invigorated by new “isms”. Craftivism, hacktivism, hashtag
activism, conscious consumerism. Culture jamming and guerilla
gardening too. How does booktivism stack up?

Pretty well, if you consider the trajectory of the Left Book Club.
Three years after its founding in 1936, 57,000 members across the
UK were leafing through delivered- to-the-door copies of The Road
to Wigan Pier and Red Star Over China, as well as its much-loved
newsletter – all of which built popular support against fascism and
proved crucial in the Labour landslide of 1945.

Book groups grow the power both of the book and of the community.

Molly Smith, Left Book Club

Post-war paper rationing contributed to the club’s closure in
1948, but more than 65 years later, it was revived by a group of
authors and trade unionists. “In a time of right-wing, corporate
media, there was an unmet desire for left-wing ideas and a sense of
community,” laments member Molly Smith, pointing out that the UK
government recently banned the teaching of anti-capitalist ideas in
schools. In 2015, the club had an influx of new members when Jeremy
Corbyn won the Labour leadership, not least because he said the
club would “give intellectual ballast to the wave of political
change sweeping Britain and beyond”. And Molly is inclined to
agree: “Book groups grow the power both of the book and of the

The idea that group discussion magnifies literature’s agency is
shared by Joanna Impey, who joined the London LGBT+ Book Group in 2013. “We’re a diverse
group, with students and people in their 70s,” she smiles. “If
we’re reading about 1980s New York, someone will have been there,
been to Fire Island, experienced the AIDS crisis.”

Before the group’s meetings moved online, it met at Gay’s the Word in St Pancras, London. It was the UK’s
first LGBTQ+
when it opened in 1979, a time when gay reading was
renegade. “There’s history between the shelves,” Joanna tells me.
“Pinned-up notes from authors, stuff from Pride marches going
back.” Founding collective Gay Icebreakers wanted the shop to be a
community space and, sure enough, it played HQ to the Lesbians and
Gays Support the Miners alliance in the 1980s and continues to host
clubs including TransLondon and the Lesbian Discussion Group. A
queer literary lifeline.

Books are at their most radical when they cross the paper bridge
between the personal and public, reading and discussion, abstract
and action. During 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the
Washington Post published an article titled: When Black People are
in Pain, White People Just Join Book Clubs. I ask Sheree – who is
half Jamaican, half Danish – how she feels about the spotlighting
of anti-racist literature. Can it be more than the kind of
performative allyship peacocking on Instagram? “There are no right
answers,” she replies. “But the power of reading is underestimated.
Once [White people] have understanding, they can have empathy and
take action. During the protests some people were ordering works by
Black authors but not necessarily reading them. So I say: buy the
books and read them too.”

Beyond private epiphanies and shared- interest communities,
there are more pragmatic, immediate ways in which books are
levelling the playing field of life. Supporting global disaster
relief, ShelterBox – “no ordinary book club” – asks its 2,000
UK members for donations in exchange for access to discussion
groups and, every six weeks, horizon-stretching titles such as The
Girl with Seven Names, an account of Hyeonseo Lee’s escape from
North Korea. The money goes towards shelter kits that give people
the tools to survive in Middle Eastern displacement camps, the
floods of Malawi, and Vanuatu where, last spring, the
under-reported Cyclone Harold flattened houses, crops and power

Let our children read that they are not alone. Equip them for adversities. Allow them to relate to characters by making sure people of all race, religion and gender are depicted correctly and representative of modern society.

Marcus Rashford MBE

As local communities buckled under the pressures of Covid,
Penguin Random House UK began distributing books to food banks and
homeless shelters. And it’s food for thought that Marcus Rashford
MBE has turned his campaigning clout to a book club for the young
and underprivileged. National Literacy Trust figures show that one
in eight of the children who receive free school meals in the UK
also don’t own a book, drawing parallels with low life expectancy
and poor mental health. “I only started reading at 17 and it
changed my outlook,” the Manchester United striker admits. “Let our
children read that they are not alone. Equip them for adversities.
Allow them to relate to characters by making sure people of all
race, religion and gender are depicted correctly and representative
of modern society.”

It’s a reminder that books aren’t just collections of ideas but
commodities too. Publishers cherry-pick the stories that will sell.
Of those that do hit the shelves, not everyone has access –
particularly in light of recent funding cuts to libraries. And we
need to ask the question: who profits from books? All too often
“Amazon” is the answer says Nicole Vanderbilt, Managing Director at

She was responsible for bringing Bookshop across the pond in
November 2020, empowering small booksellers with a big online
presence and a pretty penny. “Some indies have been able to pay
their rent or renew leases based on commission from Bookshop.
Others [unlike a certain Mr Bezos] have given their staff

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival.
They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer but a citizen instead.

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology

Beyond economics, Bookshop is shaking up our shelves with titles
that often don’t make it to The Sunday Times Bestseller List. “Like
a self-fulfilling prophecy, an algorithm points people back to the
stuff that’s selling best,” Nicole explains. “Independents help
people really connect with titles, and authors too.” So can reading
change the world? Probably not on its own, she muses. “But it’s an
exciting place to start.”

And I agree. What’s so beautiful about booktivism is not its
persuasiveness, but its proof that we don’t know everything. The
“right” worldview is fiction. Many of our communities are governed
by groupthink, but leafing between the pages we find voices and
ideas from across time, space and perspective. More than a solitary
activity, reading binds us to the whole and reaffirms our right to
question. It prompts more discussion. More open minds. More
compassion. More new chapters.

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