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Mira Nair, Rahul Gandhi, Vishal Bhardwaj, Alia Bhatt — We now judge you by your bookshelf

Bookshelves are the greatest props in quarantine video calls. They give us a peep into the minds of coworkers, bosses, and celebrities in lockdown.

Mira Nair, Rahul Gandhi, Vishal Bhardwaj, Alia Bhatt — We now judge you by your bookshelf
Youtube Screengrabs | ThePrint

Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism for Cate Blanchett, Stubbs by Basil Taylor for Prince Charles and Franz Kafka for Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj — these are just some of the books that social media users have spied on the bookshelves of their favourite celebrities during Zoom calls and LIVES during the coronavirus lockdown.

Home libraries are finally getting a well-deserved moment in the spotlight, courtesy the raging pandemic that has restricted almost all forms of social interaction to a webcam and laptop. Bookshelves are the new status symbols in quarantine life. It’s become almost a hobby now to spy at them. Read the comments section of YouTube videos or Facebook LIVES— and there’s sure to be one about the books in the background.

Some bookshelves are just cozy like author and lyricist Gulzar’s well-stocked shelves that obviously look well-used. There are differences in sizes as well, such as YouTuber Lilly Singh’s lightly-stocked topsy turvy shelf. And a personal favourite is director Mira Nair’s regal, long shelves chock full of what could only be some amazing books.

But then there are also the likes of actor Alia Bhatt’s rather sad one shelf with only a few books. Also disappointing was the row of books behind Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during one of his virtual press conferences. We expected better from him.

And speaking of sad, UK Conservative MP Dominic Raab takes the cake. For an interview, Raab chose nine, thick, hardcover political books to flank him. This included biographies of former US president Richard Nixon and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But what makes a shelf of books an ‘appropriate’ background and quarantine eye candy?

Intellectual aesthetics for Zoom

Aside from the great aesthetic that a bookshelf provides, it also is a prop that displays your intellect. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not to imply that you are not actually smart but there is a marked difference between an in-person conversation and a video call. In the latter, it is all about getting your word in edgewise in the convoluted mess of garbled audio, unpredictable network and pixelated videos. So, now instead of micro-gestures one has to rely on visual cues, and books are pretty much within the smart domain.

If your face does get stuck in an unfortunate expression, you’d rather have your colleague, boss or contact stare at the lovely collection of books behind you.

As Amanda Hess writes in The New York Times, “There is a hint of tender vulnerability embedded in these authoritative displays. At a time when even our appointed experts rarely know what’s really going on, the veneer of respectability is always at risk of tumbling down.” At least as much respectability and authority you can muster with dead-tree produced books in the background.

On credibility, shelf envy & judgement

Even though bookshelves, to a great extent, are intended to help people act supercilious, one cannot deny the voyeuristic pleasure derived by peeping into personal libraries. Also, one cannot deny that books in general make everything better and more appealing. A case in point is the very popular Instagram page ‘Hot Guys Reading NYC’ that posts photographs of men reading books, and just the number of likes and comments each post garners is enough to conclude that men who read are very attractive.

These quarantine bookshelves have a similar sort of appeal. As Gal Beckerman, editor at The New York Times, Books, writes, “Bibliophiles do not approach bookshelves lightly. A stranger’s collection is to us a window to their soul. We peruse with judgment, sometimes admiration and occasionally repulsion.”

This judgment has also become very popular Twitter content. The account ‘Bookcase Credibility’, with over 77,000 followers, gives detailed, sardonic and sometimes philosophical views on what famous people’s bookshelves say about them. From author Arundhati Roy’s “book cairns” to British computer scientist Alan Woodward’s bookcase that is rightly described as “a masterpiece of perspective” — Bookcase Credibility is the two-minutes of fame that every individual library vies for.

But it is not all sunshine and rainbows, you can be on this account’s radar for all the wrong reasons too. For instance, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown was called out for his “kitchen sink approach” and multiple copies of the same book (the horror, the horror).

And thank god Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor were spared by this Twitter account because their library, while aesthetically pleasing, is mostly full of coffee table books. And no, books with big pictures that are meant to be flipped cannot be at par with novels and non-fiction. Sorry.

But there is one person in Bollywood that we know owns a great library — Shah Rukh Khan. Khan has given glimpses of his impressive library earlier and we also know for a fact that he once pulled an all-nighter to rearrange his library (swoon!). This is one of the comments, by no doubt another spy like us, under a YouTube podcast with Khan: “Someone else noticed the book on the Table … Its ‘Muhammad s.a.w’ by Martin Lings…. SRK has a good collection of books!” An Instagram LIVE in the Mannat library is long overdue.

Bookshelves are now all the rage and in the next Zoom call don’t forget — “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you,” as the bio of Bookcase Credibility very emphatically states.

But, you will have to say something smart eventually, books can only do so much.

Views are personal.

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