BookTok star Jack Edwards: ‘I got to interview the Gruffalo last year. They say don’t meet your idols’

<span>Jack Edwards photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review, May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Jack Edwards photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review, May 2024.Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Born in 1998 and brought up in Brighton, Jack Edwards started a YouTube channel at secondary school. After documenting student life at Durham University, he began posting videos about books in 2020. Now a renowned book influencer with 2.3 million subscribers on social media platforms, he also has a guest-led, weekly podcast launching this summer, is writing his first novel, and hosted the International Booker prize livestream last week.

You’re one of the biggest stars of BookTube and BookTok. Why do young people watch you?
I’ve been asking myself the same question for a very long time! I think seeing someone talk with enthusiasm about their interest, and conveying how much they adore their area of expertise, is kind of magnetic. Also, reading is one of those things that so many people make their resolution, and it started to take off [more] during the pandemic when we’d baked all the banana bread, learned all the TikTok dances and done all the puzzles in the attic.

Tell an old person who is scared of BookTok – what could I learn about books there?
I love that BookTok is really democratised – people who don’t need to have a degree in literature or be the person who managed to get a job at a newspaper talk about a book that resonated with them. It’s also diverse. On my feed, I see people who look and sound like me and people who do not look and sound like me from every country in the world. They’re just individual people in their bedrooms, putting down a book from however many years ago or that came out last week saying: “Oh, my goodness, this just made me fall back in love.”

You are the first person in your family to go to university, and you didn’t have any connections to the publishing industry. Where did your love of books begin?
It’s a funny story. Because my eyesight is incredibly bad – I have contact lenses now, but they’re like marbles – my mum helped me learn the letters of the alphabet very early so that I could get an accurate diagnosis of my eyesight. It’s so strange to think that ever since my whole life has been that pursuit of letters on a page.

Were libraries important to you too?
I used to go to my local library to do a reading challenge every summer, and as soon as I turned 18, I volunteered there. Having adults ask me not only what I was reading, but what resonated with me, was so validating.

You enthusiastically reviewed Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger last year, which explores real and digital selves. Did that resonate personally?
I was really interested in the way that we sculpt an online identity and how we are constantly thinking about how we can contribute to cultural conversations – but we’re doing that in real time on public platforms. Recognising our fallibility is crucial, as is having to be humble enough to learn from them.

You’ve recently been posting about literature from Palestine. Do you get nervous about engaging with political subjects online?
I’m fundamentally not an educator or an academic but an enthusiast. My mission since graduating has been to decolonise and diversify my bookshelf, whether that’s through working closely with the Women’s prize or expanding my knowledge on books written by trans authors or by people experiencing the diaspora, or by reading books in translation. To reflect now on how my history GCSE and A-level never touched on colonialism is insane. So I’m constantly thinking, how are reading lists for students curated? Who is curating them? I should be educating myself on this and by proxy sharing with others.

What was the first book you loved?
The Man With a Plan series and The Gruffalo [laughs]. I got to interview the Gruffalo at the Hay festival last year. His answers were brief. They say don’t meet your idols.

I’m terrified about reviews of the novel I’m writing. I’m most scared of three-stars.

And the first book you hated?
That’s a really good question! Oh, Moll Flanders [by Daniel Defoe]. I did it in my first year at university. It was written at a time when authors were trying to distinguish prose from poetry, for it not to be elevated, ornate and elaborate. But the level of mundane detail is absolutely absurd!

This year’s Met Gala theme was based on a JG Ballard short story – which you reviewed online, of course. What was your favourite costume?
Lewis Hamilton’s jacket. It had a poem stitched on the inside by the Welsh poet Alex Wharton, about a gardener who was one of the first recorded black people in north Wales.

What can we do to help independent bookshops?
When I travel to a new place, the first thing I do is search online for independent bookstores. I make visiting them a really fun way to explore neighbourhoods that maybe I wouldn’t have been to on the tourist track. I just spent five weeks writing in Seoul, using bookstores as a kind of map for the city.

You’re currently writing a novel. How are you feeling about future reviews?
Terrified. What I’m most scared of are not the one-star reviews but the three-star. The “I understood what you were trying to do here and I didn’t think you did a good job” review. The most brutal! My book’s a historical novel. I went to a lecture about this person in university and wrote in the margins: this would make a great book. It’s something that I’ve always returned to.

What’s it like to host the International Booker prize online?

These ceremonies have usually been inaccessible for people outside the room, so to get to bring people into that room when you don’t have to be press or work in the industry, and just love reading, is a privilege.

What other non-book culture have you loved recently?
I loved Cara Delevingne in Cabaret. I wrote about Christopher Isherwood’s novels for my degree dissertation and know that Sally Bowles is quite rough around the edges – her performance style isn’t refined. Cara really captured that energy.

You keep details of your friends and family private, but what do they think of your career?
The hardest thing is explaining to my grandparents what I do because I think they’ve told a lot of their friends that I make videos in my bedroom and put them on the internet. Which sounds a little more exotic than the truth. Or erotic!