Michael Gove hit the headlines on Monday. Not for his policies, but for his bookshelf: when his wife, jounalist Sarah Vine, shared a snap of their shelves on Twitter, critiques were swiftly launched.
Of course, this was only the latest bookshelf from a prominent home to be scrutinised online. If I've learned anything from The Golden Age of Zoom, it's that the eyes aren't the window to a person's soul; their bookshelf is.
How many times have you 'jumped on a Zoom call' with a friend or colleague recently only to miss most of what they were saying because you couldn't take your eyes off the spines behind their head?
Never have our homes – or at least the small rectangle of we choose to make a backdrop for video calls – come under more scrutiny. So since many of us are going to be playing this game for a while, it seems fair to ask: how do you win it?
'Anyone who sees your library isn’t just seeing the creative output of the authors who wrote the books,' says Thatcher Wine, CEO of Juniper Books and 'book curator' to the rich and famous. 'They are seeing the story of your life written across your shelves through the books that you’ve chosen to keep and display.'
Wine's talking from his home in Colorado, USA – on Zoom, obviously – in front of a delectable backdrop of beautifully bound classics, including works by Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger, a hefty anthology of poetry, a family photo and other personal knick-knacks.
'The books behind me are conscious decisions based on what I like to read, what I'm interested in,' he adds. 'Our books reflect who we are, whether we've consciously committed to that or not. And they tell a fascinating story about where we've been, what we're interested in and what we want to learn in the future.'
Wine – a long-time bibliophile, collector, and author of For the Love of Books, about exactly this subject – has been curating bookshelves for the rich and famous since 2001. He is best known for the job he did on Gwyneth Paltrow's library in her LA home. 'She has a lot of interests, from arts to fashion to literature,' he offers. '[But] like most of my clients, she really left a lot of it to me'.
Aside from Paltrow, who is a childhood friend, Wine won't namedrop, though he says his clients are as A-list as they come, from politicians to celebrities to sport stars. 'If you look closely at Zoom backgrounds on TV at the moment, we're in a lot of those houses,' he says. 'But because books are personal, and people may not want the public to know that somebody else picked out their books, we don't disclose client names.'
Over the years, he says, he's been asked to build bookshelves around 'every subject you can imagine', from an entire library dedicated to Sicilian history to one assembled exclusively of Charles Dickens first editions. 'Once, a client had a romance novelist visiting and wanted to have all her books on her shelves when she came. I said I'd get all the nice new hardcover editions and she said, “No, I want it to look like I've read them in the bath.” So I went to a dealer who I don't usually buy from because the condition of his books is too poor, but he was perfect for that job.'
As far as books-as-background goes, he takes a particular interest. 'I've been obsessed with the books behind the person for a really long time,' he says. 'Politicians have done it for decades. I'm sure very few of them have ever turned around and looked at their books and said, "Wait a minute, those are upside down, or those are Reader's Digest books." Or, "do I have a book that I don't want people to know I've read, that reveals something about me that I'd rather people didn't know?"'
Let's cut to the chase: it's safe to assume that few people on Earth know their way around a bookcase better than Wine. So I asked him for some advice on how to curate the perfect bookshelf for these Zoom-addled times. Here's what he had to say...
Before you start
The key thing is to ask yourself: who am I right now? Think about what exactly you want to convey about your interests, your hobbies, how well-read you are, and also how organised you are. Then, take everything down to start with a clean slate, dust them off, and say, 'If I was a stranger, what would I think about me by looking at what's behind me?'
Think what fits in and what doesn't. For example, there might be a Stephen King book with a bright red title that jumps out of the shelf. People might be having a Zoom conversation with you but really are looking at that book the whole time. Is that the book you want people to look at?
Turn a cover out, one per shelf
Placing books with attractive front covers with their front facing out brings an element of surprise to the shelf. Say, 'OK, this trilogy about Winston Churchill shows I'm into history and leadership, and maybe these other books about fashion don't fit here (unless you're in that industry). Maybe you'd like to accentuate a book about the 1918 flu outbreak.
Neutral colours bring calm
You can create a really serene, calming background where nothing jumps out that makes people just feel good while talking to you. That could be a combination of neutral colours, like blacks, browns and tans. Antique leather books are great at this too – they're very muted, and convey sophistication without being a distraction.
You can't go wrong with classics (but be familiar with your moderns)
Dickens, Austen, Orwell, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Those are the sort of authors who always make a good impression. All I'd really say about fiction is that if you're more of a modern fiction reader, be somewhat familiar with them. Classics are easy to blag; you can say you read it in college a long time ago. You can't do that with moderns.
Try my 'two thirds rule'
Try lining books across two thirds of a shelf, alternating left and right as you go from shelf to shelf. That gives a nice rhythm to the bookshelf. It also forces you to think creatively about how to fill the spaces with other objects from your life: a grandmother's jewellery box, a photo of a loved one, a flower vase you collected on trip. It all adds to your story.
Test out vertical and horizontal placements
If you don't want non-book objects on your bookshelf, I'd recommend putting your vertically aligned books on one side and then a horizontal stack on the other, like a bookend. And then reverse that on the shelf below. That's a good way to mix in novel-sized books, histories and biographies with, say, bigger art or photography books.
You don't have to have read them all
Some purists have a hard time with what I do. They say, 'Oh you should only have the books that you've read on your shelves.' No. Your bookshelf should reflect where you've been, who you are now, and where you want to go. And to a certain extent that can include books that you want to read, or that your ideal self aspires to read. And if you only have the books that you have read then maybe you're not going to change very much in the future.
Remember: there is no wrong way to organise your books
So long as you have books, you're doing it right. So if you want to organise them by colour, by size, by alphabet... that's fine. Some of the best-read people I know organise their books by colour because it's fun. They've already read the books, and now they're decorative objects. Plus, some people actually remember books by colour, which can be better than the library cataloguing system.