Kendall Jenner in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo courtesy of Splash News.
While a crowd of men in rumpled graphic T-shirts huddled in the shade behind her, Jenner lounged in a shaft of tropical winter sunlight, impeccably styled in a rust colored bikini and an open green shirt, her sharply parted hair tied in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
She was reading a turquoise post-it dotted copy of Tonight I’m Someone Else, an essay collection by the Brooklyn-based writer and Bennington College professor Chelsea Hodson. In some photos, a copy of Black Swans, by the bohemian 70’s satirist (and resurgent literary world favorite) Eve Babitz, could be seen peeking out from Jenner’s furry orange tote.
It’s not the first time that Jenner has been seen reading what some people refer to as “alt lit.”
By the pool at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc in France in May, she was snapped reading Darcie Wilder’s debut novel literally show me a healthy person, a brooding cult hit about grief. Next to her, Luka Sabbat rifled through a copy of No One Belongs Here More Than You, a collection of short stories by Miranda July. It, too, sported post-it notes.
Both Hodson’s and Wilder’s books sold out on Amazon within 24 hours after the photographs were published. The reaction online, from the authors themselves as well as those in their circles, was a mix of shock, delight and outright celebration: Very rarely do the worlds of mass celebrity and independent book publishing intersect.
And rarely has the power of “influence” been felt so acutely in an industry in which a media blitz usually involves not much more than a handful of speaking events at local bookstores. For the kinds of people who post Ben Lerner galleys on their Instagram stories to telegraph good taste, intelligence and access, Jenner’s paparazzi images created a sort of cognitive dissonance.
Hodson, who documented her reaction to seeing her book on TMZ’s homepage on Instagram and Twitter, described the experience as surreal.
“Most of the writers I know expect very little in terms of success. Or, if they expect a lot, they're disappointed,” she told me. “I think that every writer, on some level, wants an audience, and I certainly want my book to reach people who have never heard of me,” she added. “So, I'm really grateful that Kendall Jenner and even these tabloid publications helped me to do that a year and a half after my book's publication. It seems clear to me now that her influence has the power to truly change people's lives.”
After the Hotel du Cap photos, Wilder said she remembers being “shocked and amused at the absurdity of it, also confused. It doesn’t make sense but I’m into it.”
Hodson says that her students were the most enthusiastic about the news. “I actually received so much attention that day that it started to depress me,” she said. “I realized that almost no one is immune to the power of celebrity. Celebrities are at the center of our culture, and books are typically somewhere in the periphery of that, so I think it excited people to see those two things side by side.”
In November, Jenner posted a Instagram story in which she went through a pile of tomes that included Hodson’s (in the clip, you can make out the scribbles on the turquoise post-it on the cover: “THIS BOOK. This is my favorite BOOK. You should start here!").
Also in the stack: So Sad Today, a book of personal essays by Twitter personality Melissa Broder; the short story collection Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis; How to Cure a Ghost, a poetry collection by Fariha Róisín; The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington; poet and author Lang Leav’s Sea of Strangers; The Houseguest: And Other Stories by Amparo Dávila and the aforementioned Babitz compilation.
After her work appeared in the Instagram Story, Róisín told me that she experienced something similar to Hodson: “I got more text messages about that then any other thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” she said.
Tagged in the story was Jenner’s agent Ashleah Gonzales, who many (including Wilder, in an essay on The Outline) credited with being the source of the supermodel’s indie-leaning reading material.
Via email, Gonzales confirmed the fact (“Yes, it me,” she wrote). She added that every year for Jenner’s birthday, she sends her favorite books from the past year. “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 said.
Gonzales also confirmed that the turquoise post-its were her doing, a way of calling out her favorite essays and short stories in each edition. In Hodson’s book, she said she had flagged an essay called “The New Love,” which she described as “heart melting in a way I hadn’t felt in a very long time.”
At a Calvin Klein event last week, Jenner told W’s Kyle Munzenrieder that her love for reading began in earnest this year, “I just started to get into it and found a real love for it,” she said. “It’s a form of therapy for me in a way. It’s kind of nice to focus and look at something that’s not your phone screen.”
In addition to Gonzales’s recommendations, she’s been diving into the world of self-care and self help: “I just started the Untethered Soul. Someone told me to read that one because I have pretty bad anxiety. I just finished the Four Agreements, which I really liked,” Jenner said.
Some early press coverage of Jenner’s reading habits contained a whiff of coded sexism, of an American public’s lingering inability to ascribe multidimensionality to women famous for their looks. After the Cannes photos were published, The Daily Beast wrote that her choice to read Wilder’s book poolside “suggests that Jenner might be a far more complex, darker person than fans previously imagined.”
In 1955, a series of photos of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses in a bathing suit elicited a similar reaction: How could an actress known for playing the dumb blonde possibly have an interior life? Some insisted that it must have been a prop, or some kind of joke.
Years later, quoted in the book Joyce and Popular Culture, the photographer Eve Arnold said that Monroe kept a copy of the book in her car, “She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it,” Arnold said. “When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film.”
I asked some of the authors whose books had been associated with Jenner why they thought the public is so fascinated by images of celebrities reading. Why are they simultaneously so glamorous, jarring and compelling?
“I think people want to believe that something as ordinary as reading could be glamorous. I don't think reading in a bikini on a yacht is the only way to make books glamorous, but it might be the most immediately effective way,” said Hodson.
“Most of us have a relationship with reading and books, and the experience is very internal and solitary, which is potentially a juxtaposition with the outward-facing celebrity,” said Wilder. “It's kind of like everyday minutiae that makes them seem 'just like us' while also illustrating how completely different their lives are. I read Chelsea's book on my couch, not a yacht.”
“I’d argue we are obsessed with what celebrities are doing in general but when it comes to reading—from Oprah to Reese to Kendall—we like to feel like they’re just like us, and reading is a very human experience,” said Róisín. “So I assume through emulation we can believe we have some kind of closeness or relation to them.”
Written in the droll style that mirrors her popular Twitter account, Broder’s response was, simply, “We are looking for God.”