Why We're Obsessed With Celebrities' Bookcases During Quarantine
Our critic Amanda Hess looks at why scrutinizing a celebrity's bookcase has become a pandemic parlor game.
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TV news programs used to signal a person’s expertise by superimposing a photograph of skyscrapers behind their head or maybe a shot of the world lit up at night. But now, experts are forced to assemble their own TV-ready backgrounds. Enter the credibility bookcase, the background that makes you look like you know what you’re talking about. The bookcase has emerged as the background of choice for politicians, executives, celebrities and anyone else hoping to add a touch of authority to their amateurish video feeds. And an anonymous Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility, emerged in April to track the trend. Its tagline is: “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.” Take Joe Biden’s bookcase. It contains a worn leather football which says, “I too am a finely aged American antique.” The British politician Liam Fox has a hardcover copy of “The Da Vinci Code,” which says, “I have taste” … “Dear God.” … maybe even bad taste. And the Broadway actress Melissa Errico displays a volume called “Irish Erotic Art,” which says, “We like to have fun here.” “What do you think the book says about a person that another background might not reveal?” “It tells us what they’re kind of intellectually curious about, how much they’re following the trends and how much they sort of have their own pursuits. Prince Charles, almost his entire bookshelf is just like horse books. Jane Goodall, a pretty serious individual, had this sort of cheesy crime novel. But the one that really got me is Cate Blanchett’s complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. You know, I think we’ve always thought of her as a sort of rare creature, and this just kind of heightened that sense.” But for pundits, politicians and the expert class, the physical appearance of your bookshelf can be more important than the books themselves. These are the superficial choices made by people who pretend to reject superficial choices: leather binding, fine-polished wood, Encyclopedia Britannica. The credibility bookcase signals class, education and money. Suddenly everyone looks like they’re Zooming in from their private law office or the set of “Beauty and the Beast.” “And nothing screams credibility as much as a suit.” We don’t often talk about the aesthetics of credibility, but intellectual authority actually has a specific and highly inflexible look. In this country, it’s a dark suit on a white man. And if you deviate slightly from that mold, some enforcer of the status quo will take notice. Remember when Obama wore a tan suit? “The president stands behind the decision to wear his summer suit at yesterday’s news conference.” And when the Congressman Pete King went on CNN to slam the color of the president’s suit … “And I thought the suit was a metaphor for his lack of seriousness.” … he did it in front of a credibility bookcase. “This actually looks pretty legit.” Traditionally, treating books as purely decorative objects has been seen as anti-intellectual. Until recently, the bookcase aesthetic has been dominated by the design sensibilities of Instagram in which books are often arranged not by author or subject, but by color and height. “And if you have some old books but they’re a bit ugly, you can always put them with the spines facing inwards because the pages go with anything.” When the lifestyle influencer Lauren Conrad filmed a tutorial video in which she slashed into books and put their hollowed out husks on display, she got so much hate for it that she deleted all evidence of what she did, or at least she tried to. So it’s remarkable how quickly the bookcase has been reclaimed as an intellectual accessory, and integrated into the brittle aesthetic rules of authority. When we see these in the background of a talking head, it’s strangely reassuring. It makes us feel like the levers of expertise and professionalism are operating normally, even though, right now, they are very much not. “Yep, that’s me busted wearing shorts on GMA. My casual bottom-half going viral.”