Other People’s Shelves
A few years ago, in London, I went to what I’d been led to believe would be a harrowingly glamorous party. The friends who dragged me along pitched it as an ordeal, something I would look back on with an awed shudder. I would feel dusty and provincial among these metropolitan demigods, and though I would probably not enjoy myself in the moment, I would be glad of the experience overall. Something to aspire to, a social Everest I had no hope of scaling. It was exciting. I see now that my expectations were far too high going in, but still, the speed with which they were dashed was remarkable.
Within minutes of our arrival, it was clear that I’d been had. It was just a normal party, full of people on normal drugs, with normal art on the walls, and men fiddling self-consciously with their beanies in a way I was familiar with. Even standing far away from the bookshelves, in the dim light, I could tell that the books were just like the ones on the shelves of people I knew in Cape Town. I was sure there would be a copy of Anthony Kiedis’s Scar Tissue among them. I whispered this to the friend I’d arrived with, and he nodded grimly. ‘There are two copies,’ he said. ‘Also a copy of The Fountainhead. I already checked.’ I was crushed by this. To arrive at a party in your best dress, ready to be cowed by the untouchable elegance and sophistication of the hosts, only to be confronted with not one but two copies of the autobiography of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman and a copy of The Fountainhead? So deflating. Such a slap in the face.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and not just because a party in Manor House where a girl standing outside the bathroom pukes down the front of her dress, turns to me with a winning smile and says, ‘Oh my god don’t worry, it’s just Zara!’ sounds like heaven to me now. Books do furnish a room, and for those of us who get a kick out of spying on other people’s shelves, the last few weeks have offered an embarrassment of riches. Whole Twitter accounts have been set up for the sole purpose of scrutinising the titles that famous people choose to display in the background during their televised Skype calls: Bookcase Credibility (‘what you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you’), Isolation Bookshelves, Room Rater, and no doubt dozens more.
The point of the game is not to find out the books people are reading, but the books they want to be seen to be reading. Some people are more sporting than others, acknowledging the rules of the game and knowingly playing along. They position themselves right up against the shelves, practically leaning on them, so the titles are fairly easy to discern. See, for example, Prince Charles, glowing ruddily, nestled between Freya Stark’s The Minaret of Djam, Dick Francis’s Shattered and Tropica: Colour Cyclopedia of Exotic Plants and Trees from the Tropics and Subtropics. Or Trevor Noah, with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, Eddie S. Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis behind him. Or Janet Yellen with Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump In the White House. Or Stacey Abrams with Dan Pfeiffer’s Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again. Such bookcases make plain the curatorship involved in the exercise. The message being sent is clear, whether it’s ‘I like horses and thinking about plants indigenous to former British colonies’ or ‘Trump shouldn’t be president, I should.’
Others are more difficult to make out, either because of a reluctance to play along (the political editor of the Sun in a darkened room), a misunderstanding of the rules (Claire Danes sitting too far from the shelves) or both (Cherie Blair in front of a bookcase holding a big silver plate and a copy of the dictionary). My bar for entertainment is admittedly very low at this point, but I have spent many happy hours over the past few weeks examining blurry screengrabs of people’s studies, looking at their art, wondering at their decision to take meetings in a room that makes it look as if they are being held by kidnappers in an undisclosed location. My mother loves it too, and we have been staying in touch by sending each other screenshots of the weird statues Bill Clinton has on his mantelpiece, and laughing at Dr Phil’s evil-looking display cases, looming brown and sinister behind him.
But the game took a dispiriting if perhaps predictable turn yesterday, when the Daily Mail journalist Sarah Vine cut out the middleman and put up a photo of a bookshelf she shares with her husband, Michael Gove. Innocent bystanders were forced to take part in an entirely different activity, engaging with ridiculous bad-faith arguments from people who couldn’t see what might be wrong with a cabinet minister owning (and displaying) books by eugenicists and Holocaust deniers. Even if you have a lot of time on your hands, and even if you’ve just spent three hours trying to work out what Anna Wintour may be driving at by dressing her Skype set with a book about the McCarthy trials (Victor Navasky’s Naming Names), this game is no good. The rules have all been changed, and there is a long part in the middle where everyone has to pretend that Michael Gove exhibiting a book by David Irving on his bizarre twinkly bookcase (not far from The Bell Curve and Atlas Shrugged) is a timely prompt for a discussion about ‘the marketplace of ideas’. Horrible. Happily, though, Room Rater and Bookcase Credibility post new pictures hourly, and there’s more than enough to keep us all occupied without bringing Sarah Vine into it at all.