Other People’s Shelves

Rosa Lyster

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.


  • 5 May 2020 at 6:42pm
    Rich Will says:
    'Ridicuoous bad faith arguments' is spot on. No one can nowadays claim they don't know who Irving is, and those dismissing concerns over Gove's ideological sympathies seem to be happy to rub shoulders with others defending Irving as merely one distinguished historian among others. It barely needs pointing out that far, far more was spun out of far, far less with regard to Corbyn's alleged anti-semitism.

    I actually had a strikingly similar encounter with a stranger's obnoxious fondness for holocaust denial literature, one I wrote about here: In my case I took the books in question away and burnt them, and make no apology for having done so.

    • 12 May 2020 at 10:48am
      ianbrowne says: @ Rich Will
      I have quite a few books on my shelves by assorted racists and fascists. I live in Romania and have an interest in the interwar period, when intellectual life in Bucharest consisted largely of crackpots and fascists. Emil Cioran, for example, wrote "if I were a Jew, I would hang myself", something he tried to gloss over in his subsequent career as 'a great thinker' in France.

      I don't own books like this because I share the sentiments. I find them at best ridiculous (Constantin Noica) and at worst totally deplorable (Cioran).

      But I'd be rather upset if I invited you round for a cup of tea and you stole and burnt some my books.

      People own books for all sorts of reasons, and I'm happy to give Michael Gove and Sarah Vine the benefit of the doubt. Just because they own them it doesn't mean that they agree with the ideas expressed in them.

  • 5 May 2020 at 7:47pm
    Matt Jordan says:
    Rich Will's remark about Corbyn, "the unluckiest anti-racist in history," is pitiful nonsense, deriving either from wilful partisan blindness or preposterous ignorance. Not only is Corbyn's long history of fraternization with committed antisemites a matter of public record but, since we are on books, he was glowing in his praise of John Hobson's virulently antisemitic Imperialism, in his foreword to that tome. We await the findings of the investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, but Corbyn is responsible for the Labour Party sharing with the openly fascist British National Party the ignominy of being the only political parties ever to be subject to such proceedings. The shame due to Corbyn and his supporters should not be minimized or trivialized in this disingenuous manner.

    • 6 May 2020 at 5:35am
      Rich Will says: @ Matt Jordan
      Do you have anything to say about Michael Gove, given that the article above is about him and not about Jeremy Corbyn?

    • 13 May 2020 at 11:32am
      Clive says: @ Rich Will
      No, clearly Corbyn is the real malefactor here

      My guess is he snuck into poor Gove's house and put the book there, in the hope of influencing government policy

      He has a long history of it, don't you know?

    • 17 May 2020 at 9:08am
      Denis Mollison says: @ Matt Jordan
      Have you not yet noticed that the whole "Corbyn/Labour is antisemitic" trope, and the so-called IHRA definition, come from people determined to confuse opposition to Israel's racist colonial regime with anti-semitism?

      Within this paper, you could try -
      or going back before the recent smear campaign -

  • 6 May 2020 at 1:31am
    Evangelion says:
    Pace Matt Jordan, Hobson's Imperialism is hardly virulently antisemitic by the standards of the time. It contains one single remark which is certainly interpretable as antisemitic, although it could be read more as a coded personal dig at Lord Rothschild, who bankrolled much of Britain's colonial expansion across the south of Africa -- coded perhaps because Lord Rothschild was still very much alive at the time of writing, and had the money to sue. In any case, while regrettable, it is a single remark and not essential at all to the argument Hobhouse develops. For a book to be condemned in its entirety as 'virulently antisemitic' surely calls for a little more than that.

    Moreover, Corbyn's 'glowing praise' for the book is doesn't really go beyond calling it 'interesting' and 'remarkable', and certainly Corbyn is not the only person to think this of what is widely recognised as the foundational study of imperialism as an economic phenomenon. He isn't reviewing the book, he is writing a foreword, which mainly consists of his own analysis of how Hobson's economic ideas have stood the test of time.

    All in all, I think it is fair to say that Matt has provided a perfect example of the very kind of spinning a great deal out of not much that Rich Will was talking about. Compare and contrast with the leeway which the current prime minister is given regarding the many outright racist outbursts in his past.

  • 6 May 2020 at 1:30pm
    Matt Jordan says:
    I'm not going to waste time debating in detail what are diversions from or putative mitigations of the point: Corbyn's long history of fraternization with antisemites and the encouragement of antisemitism, and antisemitic denial of antisemitism, that flourished under his leadership. If the likes of Rich Will and his supporter ever make contact with reality it will be a matter of pure coincidence, and they will probably hurt their heads on it. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission report looms.

    • 12 May 2020 at 9:23am
      ianbrowne says: @ Matt Jordan
      I don't I think that the appropriate response when someone points out you've made two significant factual errors is to say " I'm not going to waste time debating in detail"

  • 6 May 2020 at 9:58pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Oh don’t be fucking daft. It is not yet a crime to read books by bad people, nor to have them on one’s bookshelf.

  • 6 May 2020 at 9:59pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Oh, and by the way, I think it’s a greater crime to have burned a book of which you disapprove.

    • 6 May 2020 at 11:27pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Oh yes Book burning. What does that remind me of.

  • 7 May 2020 at 8:53am
    4004234060 says:
    @Rich Will. I suppose you cannot see the irony of condemning Nazis and their apologists while burning books. Did you agree with the burning of Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses"?
    On Irving, did you know many of his books are referenced by some of our most outstanding historians of the Nazis and Hitler such as Ian Kershaw? But of course you know better than Kershaw than to have sullied your brain with the writings of Irving.
    As a young person I was always told in a democracy you fight and defeat ideas with an ideas. That philosophy has stood many of us in good stead over the years. I just hope your Hobbesian approach to debate remains the practice of a very few people who occupy the extremes wings of both left and right.

    • 10 May 2020 at 12:29am
      Delaide says: @ 4004234060
      So, David Irving was a good historian (which I doubt) although he was a Holocaust denier.

      Where’s Fred Skolnik when you want him?

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