They have killed skinny jeans and continue to shame millennials for having side partings in their hair. They think using the crying tears emoji to express laughter is embarrassing. But now comes a surprising gen Z plot twist. One habit that those born between 1997 and 2012 are keen to endorse is reading – and it’s physical books rather than digital that they are thumbing.
This week the 22-year-old model Kaia Gerber launched her own book club, Library Science. Gerber, who this month appears on the cover of British Vogue alongside her supermodel mum, Cindy Crawford, describes it as “a platform for sharing books, featuring new writers, hosting conversations with artists we admire – and continuing to build a community of people who are as excited about literature as I am”.
“Books have always been the great love of my life,” she added. “Reading is so sexy.”
Gerber isn’t alone. Last year in the UK 669m physical books were sold, the highest overall level ever recorded. Research from Nielsen BookData highlights that it is print books that gen Z favour, accounting for 80% of purchases from November 2021 to 2022. Libraries are also reporting an uptick in gen Z users who favour their quiet over noisy coffee shops. In the UK in-person visits are up 71%.
While the BookTok charts – a subsection of TikTok where avid readers post recommendations – are regularly topped by fantasy and romance titles from authors such as Colleen Hoover, gen Z are reading a diverse range of genres.
“The gen Z book sphere is incredibly broad,” says Hali Brown, the 28-year-old co-founder of Books on the Bedside, a popular TikTok account dedicated to gen Z reading habits. “There is a lot of appreciation for literary fiction, memoirs, translated fiction and classics in particular,” says Brown.
Gerber’s first literary guest was the Iranian-American writer Kaveh Akbar, who joined the model on a video call to discuss his debut novel, Martyr! On the Library Science site, a curated collection of recommended reads include Joan Didion and Jia Tolentino.
“There is a bit of a subculture within the gen Z book world which is ‘hot girl books’ or ‘sad girl books’,” explains Brown. “These largely skew towards literary fiction and memoir and deal in some way with girlhood or womanhood.”
The 28-year-old model Kendall Jenner became the unofficial face of this new “Lit Girls’ Club” when she was pictured on a yacht in 2019 off the Côte d’Azur reading Tonight I’m Someone Else, a collection of essays by Chelsea Hodson musing on the objectification and commodification of the body. Jenner’s copy was covered in green Post-it notes.
She has also been photographed by a pool in the south of France reading Darcie Wilder’s Literally Show Me a Healthy Person, which explores grief and anxiety, alongside Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Both Hodson’s and Wilder’s books sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of the photographs being published.
“Overall we are seeing a move towards escapism through the rise in speculative fiction, romance and fantasy, but I think it would be a mistake to homogenise gen Z and say they’re reading lighter,” says the author and literary agent Abigail Bergstrom. “With the oversaturation and noise of the wild west digital landscape, they are also demanding higher standards, especially when it comes to the authority and expertise of a writer on a particular subject.”
The “sad girl” genre isn’t limited to angsty females. The singer Harry Styles has been pictured carrying Didion while the reading habits of the actors Timothée Chalamet (28) and Jacob Elordi (26) have earned them the moniker of the Brontë Bros. Chalamet has name-checked Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as one of his favourite books, while last October the Saltburn star was pictured carrying a copy of Prima Facie, a novel based on Suzie Miller’s play that explores sexual assault and the legal system.
After the photos of Jenner and Elordi were published there was a stream of online discourse stating we had entered an era of performative reading. Elsewhere, meme accounts regularly satirise readers of titles from the indie publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, which have become known for their identical Yves Klein-blue covers.
Brown says she dislikes this type of discourse. “I think if they’re both keen to explore the world of reading, they shouldn’t be shut down in this way because they’re beautiful or have large internet presences. Book clubs imply that these are titles they’d like to explore with a community of like-minded people; that’s never a bad thing. If it gets more people reading, then that’s great.”
Gen Z-approved literary merch
Baseball cap, £27, The Paris Review https://store.theparisreview.org/collections/accessories/products/baseball-cap-in-forest-green. The model and author Emily Ratajkowski has endorsed this hat from the legendary literary magazine.
Tote bag, £19, Minor Canon https://minor-canon.com/en-gb/products/renata-adler-speedboat-tote. Minor Canon’s tote bags featuring prints of novels from acclaimed dead authors are the gen Z equivalent of the ubiquitous Daunt Books canvas carrier.