As the coronavirus has caused TV channels to cut back on in-studio interviews, pundits and politicians – and the rest – have been left to their own devices on how best to frame themselves in their “natural environments”.
Enter the bookshelf – seemingly the perfect solution. Not only does it texturise the background behind a talking head, but it gives off the impression that the person is full of bookish knowledge.
“A lot of people actually work in studies and have home studies – often they’re situated in environments that actually are full of books,” says Tamar Garb, professor of art history at University College London. “But at the same time, you can also see when a background has been really contrived.”
After all, selecting your bookshelf backdrop is an exercise in self-branding – presenting selective aspects of yourself before you have said a word. “There are all kinds of pundits who want to signal their authority by displaying very big historical books,” says Hussein Kesvani, a journalist who writes about online culture, adding that French economist Thomas Piketty’s tome Capital and the Russian novel War and Peace are two intellectual heavyweights that he has frequently noticed in backgrounds.
Bookshelves as backgrounds – and as a marker of authority – date back to the late 19th century when European portrait artists started to paint their subjects engulfed by books, says Professor Garb. “This was the moment of the emergence of the writer and critic as an independent professional in the context of the growth of [the] publishing [industry].” In 1879, French impressionist Edgar Degas painted the critic Edmund Duranty completely engulfed by books and in 1868, Edouard Manet, another French painter, did a portrait of the writer Emile Zola sat beside a table piled with books.
Jim al-Khalili, British physics professor and broadcaster, has been doing all of his work from his home study and conducts his Zoom webinars and TV interviews in front of his bookshelf. Almost all of the books behind him are his own, which, he says, was unintentional. “These books behind me are the hidden away books in my study” as opposed to the library downstairs, al-Khalili said. “It just so happens that now that I’m doing interviews they’re even more public than the ones downstairs so I’ve made a mistake there.”
Whether contrived or not, intentional or unintentional, the proliferation of book-flaunting has led to a new genre of media critique: bookshelf analysis. As media guests let us into their personal spaces, audiences – many who have more time on their hands and need some light-hearted distraction – are weighing in.
Twitter accounts set up during lockdown have amassed thousands of followers and are wryly analysing bookshelves and their owners based on the mess, the organisation, the colour schemes and the books themselves. As Kesvani told us, “It’s an immediately relatable concept and it’s a concept that is quite fun, considering that the reasons we are currently all indoors is very grim.”
The Listening Post‘s Flo Philips reports on how the bookshelf became the ideal backdrop, for producers, presenters and pundits alike.
Tamar Garb – professor of art history, UCL
Bernie Hogan – senior research fellow, Oxford Internet Institute
Hussein Kesvani – culture and technology journalist
Alex Christofi – editorial director, Transworld Books
Source: Al Jazeera