Yahdon Israel is turning the literary world on its head with his simple, but powerful mission: make literature enticing to people who think they don’t like to read. His journey started two years ago by happy accident on the A train in New York City. He noticed a young boy reading a worn-out copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” while wearing headphones, camo pants and Reebok sneakers. Something in Israel stirred, and he secretly snapped a picture of the boy. He posted it to Instagram with the caption #LiterarySwag, and the rest was history. Almost.
People began using Israel’s hashtag here and there, but he believed #LiterarySwag could be much bigger. Israel encouraged his friends to use the hashtag, but it wasn’t until he created a contest that the movement really took off. In the contest, whoever could take the most pictures of “swagged out readers” would receive prize money from Israel’s student loans. The contest was so successful that the #LiterarySwag founder continues it to this day.
Israel is like the Willy Wonka of literature. His only desire is to spread the joy of books, reading and all things literary to the rest of the world, but in his own way: by bridging the gap between literature and fashion, or, in Israel’s words, “literature as style.” He further explained: “The whole idea is you can be both because everyone can be more than one thing.”
When the contest exploded and began blowing up Bookstagram feeds, Israel experienced the profound feeling that he had actually “started something of value because people were taking it to their own levels.” This is when the swag, or fashion component, really came into play. Israel encouraged people to capture pictures both of what they were currently reading and what they were wearing.
To be clear, #LiterarySwag is not about simply snapping pictures of well-dressed people who enjoy reading; the subject must be holding a book while expressing their “personal style.” As more #LiterarySwag pictures were being posted, it was clear that not only did the contributors take some stylish pictures, but some took the challenge to another level by matching their clothes to what they were reading. Israel and participants continue to evolve the #LiterarySwag movement. “You create until someone improves on it,” Israel said.
As a child, Israel was unhappy with the stereotypes attached to readers. He said, “There was this paradox, for me, growing up: The kids who were cool didn’t read; the kids who read weren’t cool.” Now, the writer is trying to redefine how people think about reading and what is considered to be cool. According to Israel, “Anything that has to do with literature is #LiterarySwag.” He hopes that #LiterarySwag will encourage kids to view books the same way they view clothes. Said Israel, “I want to live in a world where kids are lining up outside of Strand the way they line up outside of Foot Locker when a pair of sneakers drop.”
This is also what compelled Israel to expand #LiterarySwag beyond his first “To Kill A Mockingbird” photo. He wants to convince people that style and literature are not so different from one another. Furthermore, he wants to make everybody aware that there are still people who read and write (they’re not all dead), and these people are normal and can have fashion sense. Through this, he hopes that people will find readers to identify with, so that more people will be inspired to read. When Israel meets writers, he asks them not only for three of their favorite writers, but also for three of their favorite designers. He calls this “myliteraryswag.”
Since the #LiterarySwag movement took off, Israel has been keeping busy. He was named editor in chief of Brooklyn Magazine in 2017. In September 2015, Israel started the Literaryswag Book Club. He started the book club because he wanted to create an event that people could come to and immediately feel welcome and like they were part of something.
The Literaryswag Book Club is a monthly meeting hosted by Israel himself at The Brooklyn Circus, a vintage clothing store in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. Initially, the book club met at the Strand Bookstore, but the Brooklyn locale truly sets the vibe for an evening of discussion with “a down-to-earth sense of style, with displays of Chucks and old-school letterman jackets.”
— Yahdon Israel (@yahdonisrael) May 28, 2018
Some people may wonder what swag means to the man who started it all. Israel shares, “I was born in the South Bronx. I have one brother and three sisters. We lived in shelters and navigating the housing system. My mom made our clothes from scratch. Her father was a tailor. She knew fabrics, she knew texture. ‘Don’t just go by the brand.’ She was big on instilling in us that we were more than what we had in our pockets. She was big on making sure we weren’t Frankensteined together. That’s what swag is.”
Israel hopes that by showing the literary and fashion tastes of big names in the publishing, entertainment and fashion industries, that “literature and style will become synonymous with each other.”
#LiterarySwag is so much more than a movement to get people reading. For Israel, it’s personal. As a kid, he couldn’t afford designer brands like other kids could, and they made fun of him for his fake Timberlands. However, Israel also says that if those naysayers didn’t exist, the literary movement that is exploding on the internet probably wouldn’t have either. The founder of #LiterarySwag has a message to share: “Whether your shoes are $700 or $25, whether your clothes are from Bergdorf or Target, as long as you’re reading, you’re #LiterarySwag.”