Sarah Buitendach Editor: Wanted magazine
A Zoom internet livestream in Sydney, Australia. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOT
A Zoom internet livestream in Sydney, Australia. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOT

Oh, look – your full collection of books by Ayn Rand. How lovely! And is that Tim Noakes’s The Lore of Running I see sticking out above your shoulder, alongside the giant chip? 

In recent weeks the rise of Generation Zoom and the bookshelf background has been offering us some delightful respite from Lockdown La La land.

It’s an old idea in a new manifestation. You know the deal: you go to someone’s house – or at least used to – and find yourself gazing at the rows of books they’ve amassed. It’s a quick litmus test that shows who you’re dealing with. The guy with all the new local politics releases on former president Jacob Zuma, the arms deal and tobacco swindles (must every journalist write a book?) is probably not the same person as the one with the complete set of vintage erotica, Blue Ocean Strategy and Dale Carnegie reissues. It reveals the lie of someone’s ideological landscape. 

But the worst, and most disarming, of all these people are the ones with no books at all. What the hell is going on there?

These days a virtual meeting divulges all. I’d been thinking about this in relation to TV news hosts, politicians and commentators who’re shown speaking from their studies in recent weeks, when a mate recommended the blisteringly wry Bookcase Credibility account on Twitter. Its acerbic summaries of the book displays of TV personalities are a hilarious treat.

Of last year’s Booker Prize winner, Bernardine Evaristo, in front of her books it reports: “Bernardine Evaristo. A Booker winner in front of a bookcase is a devastating power move that creates a feedback loop of credibility. It’s as if Louis Pasteur sat in a bath of milk in a world where people were impressed by milk.”

The New York Times has taken the notion one step further, and has made a study of celebrities’ Zoom bookshelves, freeze framing interviews and identifying tomes by their spines. It reveals that actress Cate Blanchett has all 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary and that Prince Charles owns Shattered by Dick Francis, a book described by the publication as “from the master of the equine thriller, a novel of horse-racing and glassblowing”.

The newspaper also peeped at what magazine editor Anna Wintour, anthropologist Jane Goodall and Carla Hayden – the  US’s 14th librarian of congress – are reading. Or what they would like us to think they’re reading. But they got off relatively lightly, it turns out. 

This week, social media outragists got into a right strop when Tory politician Michael Gove’s wife published a snap of the couple’s bookshelves. In it were works by famed Holocaust denialist David Irving and “The Bell Curve, which controversially claims that ethnicity can play a part in determining IQ,” explains The Telegraph. This, understandably, kicked things off. 

But before you fly off the handle, hold fire: this, as it turns out, is an eloquent lesson on how not to judge a book by its cover. The reason for Gove’s library looking so frightening is not all it seems. Read the British paper’s story on the controversy to find out more. 

If this all induces waves of anxiety that your Zoom meetings may be flagging setworks you read for matric millions of years ago, don’t panic. These two lists (albeit rather Western in their​ focus) by The Independent and The Guardian will set you on the right path if you want to blag it. Reading the actual books might also be a nice touch.

Then go through this Penguin piece on what your arrangement of books on shelves says about your personality. It might indicate that both need significant adjustment.  

*Buitendach is the FM's Life editor and editor of Wanted magazine.

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