What’s on *your* bookshelf?

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It’s been several months now since many, if not most, of our interactions — meetings, interviews, book clubs — have gone online, and Zoom has afforded us all an interesting (dare I say voyeuristic?) look into other people’s homes.

My most recent chuckle comes from the Twitter account @RateMySkypeRoom, in which the user rates the backgrounds people choose for their videoconferencing. (A recent one: “Hostage video with a nice piece of art. Kidnappers with taste. 6/10.” What’s not to love?)

And then there are the books. A well-stocked bookshelf has become the essential videoconferencing prop. Who among us hasn’t scanned the titles of books used in background shots? The very enterprising Brattle Bookshop, unable to open because of the pandemic, actually took photos of shelves arranged with selected books to send to people to use as backgrounds. Your own literary tastes not sophisticated enough? We have you covered!

There’s a more serious side to it, of course. We listen to experts because we want to believe they know what they’re talking about. What better way to communicate one’s expertise than being featured in front of a carefully curated library? You can usually — sometimes with some facial gymnastics — pick out a few titles, and most tend to be very serious: economics, politics, history, biography. (The Portuguese recently demanded the resignation of their Minister of Education on the grounds that he conducted a video conference with no books in the background!) And one can also remember John Waters’ famous admonition: if you go home with somebody and they don’t have any books in their house, don’t go to bed with them.

Some shelves exhibit a perfect symmetry of vertical spines and horizontal stacks, some are color-coordinated, all are interspersed with photographs and objets d’art. But it’s the titles that tell the tale. What do they say about a person? “You are what you read,” said Oscar Wilde, which led me to wonder, what do the titles on my shelves say about me?

What do your titles say about you?

In my case, practicality wins the day. I live in a 317-square-foot cottage, so space is at a premium. I have also — thank the bibliophilic gods — discovered I can read most fiction far more comfortably on a device than on paper. That combination means my shelves are filled with nonfiction and poetry, the two genres I still find difficult to come to grips with electronically. But they’re also scattered willy-nilly among my shelves: when I consult a book, I tend to shove it back wherever happens to be convenient. So it is that at this particular moment I have Tobin’s Elements of Surprise next to Williams’ When Women Were Birds cheek-by-jowl with Mauliffe’s When Paris Sizzled. That particular order may have changed, of course, by this time tomorrow. So anyone trying to make sense of my shelves would come away, I believe, disappointed. All they’d have learned is that I either have eclectic tastes or, les charitably, that I have a short attention span.

So I come to these Zoom meetings with a certain built-in inadequacy about what I have on display. And I have to wonder, as I sit in on talks and meetings and webinars, whether the books other people display have been chosen for the audience, or are already beloved by the presenter. If the former, do the books change, based on the different audiences one addresses?

Let’s look at a few examples, just for fun. Arianna Huffington puts the Merck Manual casually under a vase of flowers, which must make it difficult to consult when in need. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon likes mysteries, as long as they’re Scottish — she owns, or at any rate displays, every book Ian Rankin and Val McDermid ever wrote. Prince Charles clearly reads Dick Francis, his grandmother’s jockey-turned-author, while Kate Middleton — pitch-perfect as always — displays hardcover Penguin Classics such as Mansfield Park and The Portrait of Dorian Grey. And J.K. Rowling has — well, a lot of brown books, followed by a lot of red books. You get the idea.

(In Flare, Katherine Singh writes, “Because folks, I am 100% certain that these celebs have never read the books we’re seeing in the background of these Zoom interviews. And if they have, the books are not there to give us commoners a glimpse into the celeb psyche, but rather because they fit into their bookshelf aesthetic. And how can I be so sure, you might ask? Because *I* 100% do the same thing. We all do it!”)

Do you? What’s on your bookshelf right now, and will it change when it’s time for your 4:00 Zoom meeting? Inquiring minds want to know!

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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